Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 27 Oct 03 06:35
Inwell.vue welcomes Charlie Stross, whose first novel, _Singularity Sky_, was just published as an Ace hardcover. It's getting great reviews, of course, and as you'll see from his bio below, he's got many more in the pipe. This discussion's led by Charlie's pal and fellow science fiction author Cory Doctorow, also known far and wide as the Outreach Coordinator (evangelist) for EFF. ~ jonl CHARLIE'S BIO Writers are often boring people. They stay home and they, like, write for hours and hours every day. Watching them write is really boring, because believe it or not it takes much longer to write a book than it takes to read it. So let's not go there. Born in 1964, Stross knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of six, or thereabouts, but didn't really get started until his early teens (when his sister loaned him a manual typewriter around the time he was getting heavily into Dungeons and Dragons); the results were unexpected, and he's been trying to bury them ever since. He made his first commercial for-money sale to Interzone in 1986, and sold about a dozen stories elsewhere throughout the late 1980's and early 1990's before a dip in his writing career. He began writing fiction in earnest again in 1998, and that's probably why you're here. Along the way to his current occupation, he qualified as a Pharmacist. (This is what he got for listening to people who told him "but you can't earn a living as a writer -- get a career first!") He figured out it was a bad idea the second time the local police staked his shop out for an armed robbery -- he's a slow learner. Sick at heart from drugging people and dodging SWAT teams and gangsters -- it's hard to do that when you're wearing a lab coat -- he returned to university and did a postgraduate conversion degree in computer science, the one technical field he was able to get obsessive about. After several tech sector jobs, first in the UNIX industry and then in web and dot com development, he made the mistake of playing musical chairs in early 2000, just in time for the bottom to drop out of the market. Luckily he was already writing the Linux column for Computer Shopper (the UK rights to that name being owned by a much more interesting company than Ziff-Davis), so by a hop, a skip and a jump he managed to turn this into an exciting full time career as a freelance journalist specializing in Linux and free software, with a helping of internet civil liberties on the side. This, it turns out, was a perfect environment for spending more time writing fiction -- and fiction is now what he spends the majority of his time writing. In 2000, he sold his first novel. Then his second and third novels. Then his fourth and -- well, success came fast. Stross currently has eight novels under contract and scheduled to appear over the next three years, with Ace publishing his science fiction and Tor publishing fantasy. The first of those novels, "Singularity Sky", is currently available in hardcover from Ace; a sequel, "Iron Sunrise", is due out next July, while October 2004 sees the publication of "A Family Trade" by Tor, and April-May 2004 sees publication of a short technohorror novel, "The Atrocity Archives", by Golden Gryphon. He's been shortlisted for the Hugo award (twice), Nebula (once), Sturgeon (twice) and BSFA (once), and is rapidly building up a track record for coming second in major genre fiction awards. When not writing, Stross lives in an ancient tenement flat in Edinburgh's New Town (so-called because it was laid out in the 1760's) with his wife, two cats, eighteen computers (none of which run Windows), and several thousand books. CORY'S BIO Cory Doctorow is the author of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (craphound.com/down), novel; and "A Place So Foreign and Eight More" (craphound.com/place), a short story collection. His next novel, "Eastern Standard Tribe," will be published by Tor books in January 2004. He is the co-editor of the weblog Boing Boing (boingboing.net) and works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org). He and Charlie have collaborated on a number of stories, including last year's "Jury Service," published on SciFi.com.
Life in the big (doctorow) Tue 28 Oct 03 06:40
Stross and I collaborate on a bunch of sf, and for better or for worse, we're often singled out as "new voices in sf" -- whatever that means. I have my own ideas, but I'd like to hear from Charlie. Who are your peers? Who are your influences? What's the role of the Internet and computers in today's sf? Hell, for that matter, what's the role of sf in today's world?
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Fri 31 Oct 03 03:58
Whoa, that's four questions in one lump! I'm going to break it down a bit and tackle them one at a time, and I suspect I'll still be tackling them tomorrow ... and the day after ... and next week ... Let's start with "who are your peers". That's a nice question that sounds like it ought to have a clear-cut answer. Unfortunately, for various reasons it doesn't. I'm 39. For some reason, when I was 8 or 9 years old I decided I wanted to be a writer. As (like many of us) I was reading a lot of SF at the time (E. E. "Doc" Smith! yay!) it sort of implicitly followed that I would write SF. Unlike most such childhood fantasies this one didn't go away, but hung around like a bad smell until in my early teens I acquired and brutalized a manual typewriter and several reams of paper that hadn't done anything to deserve such abuse. The idea of actually publishing what I wrote was new and exotic and I think I first encountered it at 15 or so when I began writing contributions for an early gaming magazine, "White Dwarf" (because, again like many of my contemporaries in the late seventies, I was a spotty D&D player by night). Around the time I was 17 I began to fancy my fiction-writing abilities and sent a story to a magazine I'd heard of (and read, scratching my head because it was pretty head-scratch-worthy at that age) called Interzone. The editorial collective were remarkably tolerant, and about five years and several dead trees later I sold them my first commercial sale of an SF story, "The Boys" (published in the December 1986 issue of Interzone). For something written by a 22-year-old nerd who'd discovered William Gibson at roughly the same time as William Burroughs it was about what you'd expect, and it won't be appearing in any collections any time soon. Over the late 80's and early 90's I wrote and sold quite a few short stories and persistently attempted to write novels. I succeeded in writing long texts that looked like novels to me, but other people (and in particular editors) were unconvinced. It took me quite a while to get my head around these important ideas like *plot* and *character development* and *narrative structure* and I did it the hard way, because I was too busy running in circles and flapping my wings to read any writing books, because ... A side effect of the British educational system is that it forces you to specialize academically at 16. I was given the usual advice -- "don't be silly, you can't get an Eng.Lit. degree and earn a living as a novelist, get a day job instead" -- and I listened to it. For reasons that remain unclear I ended up at university studying Pharmacy, qualified as a state-licenced drug dealer in 1987, and by 1988 had discovered that I *really* *truly* was not suited to that way of life. (I have difficulty sleeping when I suspect I may have accidentally poisoned somebody.) Plus, it was eating into the writing hours. So in 1989 I got rid of the mortgage, the car, and the suit and went back to university to do a postgraduate conversion degree in computer science. Back then there was a shortage of CS graduates in the UK, and the conversion degree basically amounted to having the content of an undergrad CS degree dumped on you in twelve months. I'm not sure whether I slept that year, but the end result was that by 1990 I'd jumped career tracks from drug dealing to computing. I spent about four years as a tech author (it's surprising how few people understand algorithms and can write clearly) then when the web appeared around 1993 I began heading that way, and ended up moving to Scotland and joining a succession of start-ups. The last one, Datacash, I joined as programmer number one two weeks before the company was created, and left two months after the successful IPO; it's still going, much to my surprise. Anyway, all of the last paragraph's contents amounted to a wee distraction, and largely account for the paucity of my output during the 1990's. (It's hard to write novels while you're working for a start-up.) I suppose you could say my second writing career dates to about 1998. I took stock of myself and found (a) one unfinished novel (I was 12 months in to it), (b) one finished, unsold novel with structural problems (bits of it have since re-surfaced in the form of "The Atrocity Archives"), (c) one short story sale in 1998 -- and that was a reprint of something I wrote in 1991. I was in my early thirties and I realised that either I should give up, or I should get serious about writing. I started by setting myself a goal of writing *and selling* four stories a year, and a second goal of getting into the magazines that get name recognition -- Asimov's, Analog, F&SF. Somewhere in the preceeding decade I'd cross-fertilized a chunk of ideas between the biological and computer science, and I'd also learned a little bit more about human nature -- enough to handle characterisation better than during my late teens or early twenties. (Parenthetically: this is one of the reasons why we often see new authors erupt on the scene aged thirty-something -- they've finally learned enough about human nature to have something interesting to say about it.) So in 1998 and early 1999 I finished and sold "Antibodies" and "A Colder War" (which got me into the Year's Best SF anthologies), wrote "Lobsters" (which got me into Asimov's and onto the Hugo and Nebula ballots), completed the novel now know as "Singularity Sky", and got serious. Now, as we all know the bottom fell out of the internet stock market bubble at the beginning of 2000. Early 2000 caught me playing musical chairs. I was burned-out with Datacash, and a local ISP -- which was preparing to IPO in May 2000 -- made me an offer I couldn't refuse: come on board and set up and run a software development division. I said "yes", but midway through my notice period and *after* I'd burned my bridges with Datacash's board the bubble burst, the new company's IPO backers vanished, a cash flow crevasse yawned, and there was a hostile takeover. My new job disappeared before I even started! Luckily, I had an insurance policy. Since 1990 I'd been supplementing my income by writing for British computer magazines -- specifically Computer Shopper, which during the late 1980's and early 1990's was about the nearest UK equivalent to Byte in editorial policy. I'd been writing the Linux column in Shopper since 1998, making me the longest established Linux freelancer in the UK computer journalism scene. And a bunch of new Linux mags were springing up. So in June 2000 I switched to being a full-time writer and freelance journalist -- about 10% writing and 90% journalism at first. This month, I'm filing my last column with Shopper. It's taken three years to switch over to being a full-time author of fiction. But I'm finally here, and I'm not 40 yet. (If I'd known how much trouble it would be and how long it would take when I was 8 or 9 ...) Now, back to the question: who are my peers? Coincidentally, my first story in Interzone came out in the same issue as Paul MacAuley's first published SF story. (*I* got the cover painting, but Paul got the subsequent critical acclaim and book deal. Which is a good thing -- I couldn't have handled it.) You could make a strong case for me being part of the Interzone Generation: the group of writers based in the UK during the early to late 1980's who got their start not via the cyberpunk wave in the US, but via the pages of Interzone, which ploughed an eccentric and distinctly British furrow through the fertile fields of what Simon Ounsley named "radical hard SF" (a name designed as a provocative chimera, not a prescription or manifesto mast-head). Numerous other authors came out of Interzone. In fact, it's easier to say who *didn't* -- Ian MacDonald. (As with my second career, he's an example of a British -- okay, a Northern Irish -- author who suddenly appeared in Asimov's and sold books in the US long before resurfacing in the UK.) But Interzone developed and published the early writings of, if I remember correctly, Al Reynolds, Liz Williams (those two more recently), Chris Fowler, Simon Ings, Kim Newman, Iain Bans (at least in the short SF form), Richard Calder, and a host of others. Interzone wasn't the only influence, of course. At 19, I was vulnerable to reading Neuromancer for the first time -- it warped my own writing for years. I subscribed to "Cheap Truth", I was a late-teen cyberpunk wannabe nerd-boy, you can fill in the other gory details yourself. As with the *real* punk movement of the late 70's in the UK, I was just a bit too young and unskilled to get into it and be part of it. And then there's the other peer group. From the inconveniently weird second career that sort of began in 1998. 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! Since the mid-nineties we've had *good* new writers coming out of the woodwork every few months rather than once or twice a decade. Names like Ken MacLeod, John Meaney, Liz Williams, Al Reynolds, Neil Asher, Richard Morgan, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Justina Robson -- there's been nothing like it since the early 1960's and the British new wave. I'm not sure why it's happening, but I suspect a generation that grew up reading Interzone has something to do with it. I'm not some kind of isolated phenomenon, 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. In my case, it's because I decided to acquire an American literary agent back in 2000, and she's sold my books into the US market; most of the authors I cited are on the UK bookshelves and in amazon.co.uk but their books take some time to sell US rights and be reprinted by US publishers. You've got a treat in store. Now, I think I answered not only "Who are your peers" but a good chunk of "who are you influences" too. So next time I post it'll be about the internet and computers and SF in today's world. Or something. Watch the skies ...
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Fri 31 Oct 03 12:02
Oh yeah, one addendum: Cory's jetting around the planet over the next few days, so if anyone else has any questions to ask, feel free.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 31 Oct 03 13:47
Wow, a new movement. That's exciting! Welcome, Charlie. Always cool to hear what people did early on. Do you think the pharmacist training informs any of what you write?
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Fri 31 Oct 03 14:02
Gail: a little, insofar as various bits'n'pieces of the experience stuck. It's not so much a matter of counting pills as of having a background in biochemistry, pharmacology, and a bunch of various related biomedical fields, though. Incidentally, while the ferment in British SF has *some* of the characteristics of a movement, it lacks one thing that people in the US seem to expect: a coherent ideology. That's because it's more of an emergent thing, with a bunch of talented new writers (and some older ones) suddenly energized and bouncing new ideas off each other, rather than marching in some kind of lockstep behind th banner of a manifesto. This probably makes it healthier, if anything. (Recently a number of folks were discussing something they called "The New Weird", using M. John Harrison and China Mieville as referents, but by the time they got through deconstructing it they'd thrown everyone else in the field out of the basket and ended up with, well, China and Mike. Sort of the opposite of the process the proto-cyberpunks went through with Vincent Omniaveritas trying to pin the tail on any donkey who'd stand still long enough to sustain a puncture wound :) )
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Fri 31 Oct 03 14:03
Oh yeah, one other aside: in case it wasn't obvious, I'm in Scotland. Scotland is currently running on GMT, and it is now past 10pm here (but around 2pm WELL-time). So I hope you can forgive me if I duck out before long and get some sleep. I'll catch up with any questions you leave in the middle of the night ...
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Oct 03 14:28
Lots and lots of great stuff there, Stross, as per usual! Have you come up with a high-concept pitch for Singularity Sky yet? How do you describe it to the world?
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Fri 31 Oct 03 14:51
"Singularity Sky": when an irresistable force for communication meets an immovable ideological object ...
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Oct 03 17:44
And when confronted by the blank look this yields, you say?
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Sat 1 Nov 03 03:02
Then I tell them it's a critique of conservativism. (Hey, I've got a reputation as one of the revolutionary Scottish socialist SF writers to uphold, right?) It's not, I hasten to add, about your ordinary day-to-day conservativism, of the kind that focusses on personal concerns, self-reliance, not meddling in your neighbour's business, and so on. It's about a different *type* of conservativism, one whose most recent proponent is the philosopher Leo Strauss, and which is at odds with the entire Enlightenment program because it denies the key concept that humans beings are of equal intrinsic merit and should be treated equally before the law. If you like, call it "monarchism" -- but the existence of a king, while implied by the logic of Straussian conservativism, is by no means essential. Strauss was an admirer of Plato and while I wasn't consciously aware of the details at the time perhaps there's an ironic echo of this in the name of the New Republic. There are actually people out there -- usually written off as the barking mad fringes of the neoconservative movement -- who hold these values: that the majority of people are worth little or nothing and exist to be led by the enlightened philosophers, while those of greater ability but less insight are to be trained up as "gentlemen", patriots and warriors who will fight at the drop of a hat to defend the virtues of intolerance and rigid hierarchical control upon which their society is based. An egalitarian, post-Enlightenment society in which people are of equal worth (even if their abilities and wealth vary widely) is by definition decadent because it provides opportunities for all and a warm bath of culture in which the urge to strive for glory dissolves: citizens of such societies as the liberal democracies are no better than animals and a true Straussian society must defend itself vigilantly against this kind of rot from within. I freely admit: I am a child of the Enlightenment. I'm not so much a Trotskyite as a wooly liberal, and this sort of political philosophy fascinates me at the same time as it creeps me out. I wanted to depict it in fiction. I wanted to write a space opera (for purely cold-blooded commercial reasons, of course -- that's my story and I'm sticking to it :) ). I particularly wanted to take some pot-shots at conventional space opera by throwing in a military campaign modelled on the voyage of the Russian Baltic Fleet to Tsushima in 1904/05, which is one of the most bizarre and tragic -- not to say funniest -- events in modern military history. Once I'd tooled up the New Republic as an entity it became obvious that I needed external viewpoint characters who are more sympathetic to my readership (namely Martin and Rachel, who come from a world that is at least vaguely related to our own), and that I needed an antithesis to put up against my thesis: which was where the Festival came in. A few other random factors got thrown in the pot, such as the existence of the Eschaton (which is simultaneously a tap-dance around the yawning abyss of the Vingean singularity, which forms a perilous crack across the road forward for any writer of space opera, and a mechanism for squaring faster than light travel with general relativity's requirement that causality not be violated). And there you have it. Not all of this appeared at the outset when I began writing the novel. There's a first draft somewhere with no Festival -- that didn't work, but when I added the Festival to a subsequent draft things went more smoothly. But then the Festival needed people to interact with on Rochard's world, which is where the revolutionaries came in. (Creatures of their Straussian society, even the radical revolutionaries want to hold a revolution the way great-grandpappy ran one.) I'm a bit disappointed with the way I handled the ending: with 20/20 hindsight I don't think I managed to tie the character-based denouement in properly with the implicit dialectic between conservativism and modernism (although the background ending works okay). Still, I'm going back for more in the sequel, "Iron Sunrise", which is due out next July and which shifts focus from Straussian conservative bad guys to Neitzschean space nazi types.
Life in the big (doctorow) Sat 1 Nov 03 05:27
I very much liked the ending. In particular, (he said, sucking up to the hosts), I liked the shingle emblazoned "Access to Tools and Ideas" that gets hung out at the close of the book (further, deponent sayeth not, for fear of spoliering). What does "Access to Tools and Ideas" mean to you?
RUSirius (rusirius) Sat 1 Nov 03 11:37
What a coincidence. I just finished reading Singularity Sky. It's big fun. I particularly enjoyed the parody of the extropians... Limited audience for that though I would imagine. ...
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Sat 1 Nov 03 12:59
Hah ... "Access to tools and ideas": I've read Whole Earth Review, on and off, for twenty years. (More off than on, unfortunately, but it's not exactly widely distributed in the UK.) It seems to me that "access to tools and ideas" isn't, on its own, sufficient to guarantee freedom, but it's a good start: Marx and certain comments about alienated labour (labour that does not own the tools it uses to produce wealth, and thus must labour in service to others) springs to mind. More fundamentally, you also need various concepts such as legal equality, and of course freedom to hold ideas however unpopular they might be, before you can start talking about autonomy (which I see as one of the key goals of the American libertarians, more so than of the left anarchists). But "access to tools and ideas" is certainly important. Without it, you can be kept as a serf down on the farm and you won't even know something better is possible. RUSirius: never underestimate the size of a potential audience. More people know about the extropians than *are* extropians, and more people associate with them than would be identified with the hard core. (I'd have to call myself a fellow-traveller: I don't buy the complete package and I think some of their proposed methodologies are pretty dubious, but I've got no argument with their goals and principles.) Funnily enough, I first met Ken MacLeod via the Extropians mailing list. Small world ...
E M Richards (booter) Sat 1 Nov 03 13:21
Hi, Charlie. I just got my copy of Singularity Sky day before yesterday and am trying to read it as fast as I can, so I can say something more coherent than "Say hi to Feorag for me." Welcome to the WELL. I spend a lot of time here. If you ever get bored with netnews, this is a great place to be. (Of course, if I read the book too fast, I won't remember anything.)
Life in the big (doctorow) Sat 1 Nov 03 16:00
This business of access to tools is at the core of a species of utopianism that holds that the world's inequities would be solved if the right gadgets (or the dlueprints for building the right gadgets) were in the right hands. That's certainly at the core of your conceit in SS -- but do you buy it? What does an appropriate tool look like? What's an inappropriate tool?
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Sun 2 Nov 03 04:07
(Hi Booter! Say hello to the cats for me ...) Cory: I know about the tools/utopianism crossover and I don't completely buy it. I think it's' based on a somewhat naive reading of Marx -- whose analysis is still very much respectable even in the wake of the collapse of the supposed workers paradises established by his followers -- and I think there are a lot of other requirements that have to be met before a utopia is possible -- like, for starters, defining the parameters of human happiness! I don't generally like utopias in fiction -- they tend to be static and prescriptive, and even if they look as if they might be workable they're the sort of place that 80% of the population could put up with and the other 20% will be high-tailing it out of town to jointhe resistance. I think different human beings define their goals in different and often mutually irreconcilable ways. Flexible anything-box tools (such as nanotech assemblers and a library of canned designs for structures they can make given sufficient energy and mass -- including copies of themselves) are a great idea, but if your idea of personal fulfillment includes a hundred square kilometres of wilderness it's not going to help much in a world with a population of 50 billion. I suspect that once you look at the idea, what access to tools means to a lot of people is a dream of self-sufficiency. (Need a new car? Grow one in your back yard. Need a bit more space? Light out for a desert somewhere, wave your magic wand and make the desert grow you a ranch house.) But humans are *not* self-sufficient, for the most part: we're pack animals, we live in social groups, we are almost magnetically attracted to centres of population density so seethingly mind-blowing that nothing else like them exists on the planet except for ant-hills and termite mounds. And despite Heinlein's saw about a competant man needing to [insert list of random skills here] we tend to specialize because life's too short to pick up all the abilities and experiences we might desire. I'd like to be able to make my own shoes, for example, for the most part I'm not very happy with what's on sale, but learning to make shoes takes time and requires specialized tools and of the two, it's the *time* that's the hard thing for me to find. Intelligence Amplification, Dr Vinge's IA (as opposed to AI), is of course the thing that could turn the equation upside down. But first we need to know what the hell intelligence *is*, or at least how we can go about making it more effective -- and in domains other than the ones we're already good at. Google and a WiFi laptop do indeed enhance my ability to do certain kinds of research, but it's completely useless as an intelligence enhancer if you put me in front of a lathe or a sewing machine and expect me to use the thing more efficiently, because manual ability to operate machine tools simply isn't part of the domain within which Google acts as an intelligence amplifier. Finally, there are cultural issues. Some tools are just not compatible with some world-views. ("Singularity Sky" implicitly explored this in the background on Rochard's World; bombing the place with Von Neumann machines and nanotech provided transient wealth -- and a lot of headaches and atrocities -- but it didn't fundamentally change the nature or attitudes of the people living there, and after a bit most of them gravitated back to what they knew and were familiar with because the new stuff was unreliable and if you didn't know what you were doing it could kill you.) It's not for nothing that one of the first moves of most revolutionary Leninist (or Maoist) regimes once they achieves power is to try and start a universal literacy campaign: if people can't read, they can't receive your ideas. Oh yeah, your question: for my next birthday I want a pocket Swiss-army bush robot. And a spray can of utility fog. And a brain implant with a google-indexed copy of the Library of Congress. I don't think it'll bring about the Singularity, but it would be cool and maybe it would help me write better-informed stuff (if I didn't die of old age while exploring the contents of my own head).
Thomas Petersen (sushi101) Sun 2 Nov 03 10:34
Google would seem to be a knowledge amplifier rather than an intelligence amplifier.
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Sun 2 Nov 03 11:33
What is intelligence? Google provides interesting links between disparate chunks of knowledge, based on relevance (determined by how pages are linked to). You can make a lot of interesting inferences based on what pieces of knowledge you can connect, and goodle makes it easier to do that. It won't help you thread a needle more effectively, or make you faster at mental arithmetic (although of course it has a calculator built in :) but if you're trying to get an overview of a field or examine the intersection of a couple of fields it'll give you seven league boots. (I'd argue that Google is hampered by our current copyright and intellectual property laws -- huge amounts of data are *not* indexed because they're proprietary, and I suspect that the benefits to society of having a fully integrated knowledge base far outweigh the benefits of allowing the creators of the data to profit from it, especially when we're dealing with collations of information rather than creative content. But that's another argument.) Cory: got anything to add? (Where were we, anyway?)
turing testy (cascio) Sun 2 Nov 03 18:05
Hey Charlie. I greatly enjoyed Singularity Sky; it had enough of what I like to call "plausible surreality" about it to really appeal to me. I look forward to the sequel. You mentioned upstream a bit that the Eschaton was your hand-wave to get around the Vingean Singularity. I've seen it argued here and there that said Singularity is one of the root causes of the sharp decline in science fiction set in the near future (the next couple of centuries). It hasn't all gone away, of course -- Cory's DaOitMK is a good recent example -- but there does seem to be a real problem here. How can science fiction authors create plausible visions of the near future when we're running headlong into what Alex Steffen calls the "prediction horizon?" So, my real question for you: to what degree are your stories set in what you believe to be a not-implausible version of the Future? Are you really writing about the present (as Gibson was supposed to have said about his own stuff), or do you see yourself as really writing about the future?
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Mon 3 Nov 03 04:55
The plausibility horizon really is a huge problem for near future SF. But I don't think the singularity is the only reason for it. Put yourselves in the shoes of someone who believes that artificial intelligence is impossible and try to extrapolate forward 20 years. Where do you get to? We seem to be living through interesting times. The American Century is either close to, or past, its peak. Moore's Law is close to topping out, and the computer industry which drove the wheels of progress for a couple of decades is threatening to go where the aerospace industry went after 1968. The next obvious big fields are biotech and nanotech, but we're still absorbing the implications of computing and its bastard step-child, ubiquitous high-bandwidth communications. It's quite obvious that some very weird things are going to come out of the next big fields. For example, take my mobile phone. It's also a palmtop computer with more memory than all the mainframes in North America in 1970. Drop it in a time machine back to, say, 1960, and show it to a computer scientist. They'll be able to understand the basic design principles, although the user interface will surprise them quite a lot (it's designed for *ordinary people* to use), but the thing I'd expect them to have difficulty grasping is the social effect that phones like this have had. I think the mobile phone is as socially revolutionary as the automobile -- unlike land lines (which link geographical locations), mobile phones link *people*, wherever they are. And the implications of always being in touch (or findable) are still giving us some trouble after close to twenty years. Futures are easy to extrapolate when there's a homogeneous mainstream culture: when everyone wears a suit or a dress, then suits and dresses with high shoulder pads don't sound too implausible. But we live in a period where western culture seems to be pluralising: how do you extrapolate 20 years in a society where burkas and body-piercing naturists are also part of the culture? And how do you deal with groups who feel threatened trying to exclude other groups? The recent outburst of religious fundamentalism in the US (which, incidentally, just ain't happening here in the UK) isn't something a rationalist technophile SF writer in the 1950's would have found easy to predict. Part of the problem is that the world is shrinking and growing denser, socially and intellectually. It is now about as easy for the average citizen of a developed nation to cross the entire planet as it was to cross Massachusetts in 1803 -- roughly the same proportion of monthly wages and roughly the same time (by 747 as by stage coach). We get to rub shoulders with people we've never rubbed shoulders with before, and some of them have very strange ideas about us, and us about them. Meanwhile, we're drowning in a sea of informational pollution (boy, did John Brunner get that right!). More Brits under 24 know the name of the last Big Brother winner than of the deputy prime minister according to a poll published today. What's relevant? What's irrelevant? How the hell should I know? I'm just a wannabe barefoot futurologist! So, am I writing about the present, or the future? Your $64K question ... When I write SF (as opposed to horror or fantasy) I am *trying* to write about the future, but my voice is unalterably the voice of the present and when the future comes about it will look laughably quaint and old-fashioned. The future is a mirror for our hopes and fears about the present, as someone (Gibson?) said. I can extrapolate about wearable computers, intelligent agents, gestural interfaces, new business models descended from the open source community, the social implications of the conservativism that seems to be in store for generation Y ... and I will inevitably miss something enormous. In the 1970's, the enormous ommission in SF was the personal computer: virtually nobody even noticed the things creeping into existence, and although Murray Leinster famously predicted something not unlike the internet and PC's in "A Logic named Joe" back in nineteen forty-something, he was writing in a vacuum: nobody grabbed the concept and ran with it. I have no idea what this decade's omission will be. All I can do is try to write around it. Here's a random example: go and read or re-read Bruce Sterling's "Schismatrix". I assert freely that "Schismatrix" is one of the great SF novels of the 1980's. It's better than "Neuromancer". It reinvented space opera and was so revolutionary that half the reviewers didn't understand what they were reading. Al Reynolds has got most of a career out of building on what Sterling laid the foundations for in a single pyrotechnic throwaway and a handful of short stories. "Schismatrix" came out in, I think, 1984. If you read it, it looks like cutting-edge SF today -- except for one curious omission. The word "nanotechnology" does not appear in it once, because Eric Drexler's book "Engines of Creation" still lay in the future and the concept of mature nanotechnology simply wasn't on Sterling's radar, *even though the seeds of it had already been laid* and Drexler was working on his PhD on the subject at MIT. So. I know damn well that I can't predict the future. But I can try to invent a plausible one. How plausible is "Singularity Sky"? I think the answer has to be, "not very". It relies on a very strongly anthropic force at large in the universe to hold things together, and it insists on allowing FTL travel -- you can't really have that kind of space opera without it, can you? That's two strikes. I'm not going to award a third strike against it just yet, but I think in terms of direct extrapolation it's one of the lower probability outcomes. ("Accelerando", the series of stories running in Asimov's SF right now and the novel that is due out from Ace in summer '05, is a bit more rigorous because it starts out much closer to our own time. It uses a clock, calibrated in orders of magnitude, which I stole from Ray Kurzweil's book "The age of emotional machines": it's the computing power of the solar system in MIPS per kilogram. But then again, that's the actual in-your-face novel about the singularity. And when I finish writing it, it will be obsolete.) All in all, this extrapolation makes my head hurt. I'm glad that I've also got a fantasy series to work on ...
Life in the big (doctorow) Mon 3 Nov 03 14:56
Bloody hell, you're prolific, Stross. Boast for us. Make us cringe in futile jealousy. Tell us how long it took you to write the fine essays you've posted here thus far, then tell us about your stupendous feats of 100,000- word weekends (and tell us about the metric fuckload of books you've got in the pipe).
Yeah, but I'm a cute geek. (tinymonster) Mon 3 Nov 03 15:27
LOL! So I wasn't the only one feeling slightly... intimidated. -Christy, who Web-searched "Vingean Singularity" because she felt too dumb to ask about it here
a meat-vessel, with soul poured in (wellelp) Mon 3 Nov 03 16:56
Hmm, here I was thinking this might be a Bridget Jones kind of book with "Single" in the title. ;-)
E M Richards (booter) Mon 3 Nov 03 18:35
Charlie is a prodigious writer, in terms of thought, care and sheer output. The WELL population, from which this medium springs, tends to write in a conversational mode, as if we were in conversation, where we will post about the same amount of words as we would in our "turns" in a conversation. So, it can be intimidating to deal with Charlie online. However, if we barrage him with questions, we can tire him out (hee hee) and get him to loosen his virtual tie and relax a bit. (Not that I've seen Charlie with anything around his neck other than a cat or a scarf.) Charlie, one thing I find interesting about your writing is that you don't stoop to the lumpen reading level of (what is it?) grade 8 or 10 or whatever. I find it refreshing to read adult vocabulary, but I wonder if this may affect your future market/readership.
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Tue 4 Nov 03 03:28
Multiple questions! Booter: I'm tending to write in essay-sized bursts because it's hard to sustain a dialog with eight time zones in the way. I mean, I tend to hit the web (and the WELL) when I get up (and I'm not a morning person) but by the time most of you guys are waking up it's 5-6pm over here. We're playing ping-pong across the dateline, which doesn't encourage chattiness. (Maybe it's an indicator for how conversations will go if we ever colonize interplanetary space, with long speed of light lags to contend with?) Writing grades ... if you look at the average Victorian novel, and then at my stuff, I think my stuff is grammatically and probably lexically a lot simpler. Those guys had an immense tolerance for complex sentence structure. Looking in the opposite direction, you could argue that we've dumbed our writing down way too far to cope with the exigencies of real-time communications media like TV and cinema. Can you imagine a Hollywood movie -- or even a modern stage play -- with the sort of five minute long soliloquy that Shakespeare and his contemporaries enjoyed? If we lose the pleasure of using our language to the full, we lose also the ability to communicate difficult or non-trivial ideas. Anyway. I don't think using long sentences will hit my sales *too* hard because I suspect that those who're less able to cope with the full adult vocabulary won't be able to cope with the ideas, either -- and I ain't going to write dumb. I've tried writing dumb and it brings me out in hives. I am not writing fiction purely for the money: I'm doing it because I enjoy coming up with wild and non-trivial ideas and injecting them into other people's heads, and I'm not interested in doing that with one hand tied behind my back. If I wanted to earn my living by the pen I'd have stuck with technical writing or computer journalism, both of which I can do reasonably well. Cory: "Singularity Sky" took about three years to write, largely because I was simultaneously doing the alpha-geek programmer thing at a dot-com. "Prolific" is a function of time -- I just didn't have enough of it. I've seen the workload *you* sustain despite having a day job as, what was it, grand high panjandrum in charge of internet civil liberties? Lord supreme freedom fighter of the electronic frontier? Something like that. Well, it can't possibly be the kind of job where you get to scribble furtive chapters at work while dealing with the sheer mind-numbing existential boredom of watching the paint on the walls turn yellow, can it? I suspect if you turned your energy to writing full-time I'd have to get out of the way ... (Unfortunately, I have to confess that I've been writing these comments online in a web browser window and, like, posting them on the fly. First draft. So maybe I'm guilty as charged.) You asked about the publication schedule? "Singularity Sky" is available now in hardcover from Ace. It should go paperback in July '04, at the same time as the sequel "Iron Sunrise" comes out in hardcover (and a first UK hardcover of SS comes out). The SF novel due out in July '05 is "Accelerando", the [[pravda-style description follows]] novel from which the series of stories in "Asimov's SF" was drawn [[explanation: Ace are institutionally allergic to fix-ups, so "Accelerando" is officially *not* a fix-up, OK?]]. "Accelerando" is not connected to Singularity Sky/Iron Sunrise. It also took me five years to get through the first draft and I sweated blood over it. In contrast, the novel after "Accelerando", in July 2006, will be "Glasshouse", which I accidentally burped up back in April this year. "Glasshouse" and "Accelerando" share a universe, but "Glasshouse" feels more like a short story that ran out to novel length, while "Accelerando" is a multi-book series that's been through a car crusher. Anyway, that's four SF novels, due from Ace in the US (and now creeping out from Orbit in the UK, and also various French and Spanish and Czech publishers). In addition to SF, I write other stuff. A short novel of mine, "The Atrocity Archive", was serialized in the obscure but brilliant Scottish SF magazine "Spectrum SF" back in 2001-02. A hardcover edition, with extra material, will be published in the US by Golden Gryphon as "The Atrocity Archives" (note the trailing 's') next April or May. This stuff is, well, start by taking a traditional British spy thriller -- not James Bond glamour so much as Harry Palmer sleaze. Have a Neal Stephenson hacker-geek hero fall in and flail around, trying to escape from spook-land. Except it's not your normal spy agency: it's the division of SOE tasked with protecting the realm from extradimensional Lovecraftian horrors. Because magic is a side-effect of applied mathematics, computers are tools for doing lots of mathematical operations very rapidly, Alan Turing discovered something very unpleasant the month before he was assassinated (to shut him up), and ever since then ... I guess you'd call it horrror. But it's also masquerading as SF and spy thriller and a load of other things. Then there's the [[pravda-definition follows:]] fantasy series from Tor. [[It's a fantasy series because Ace had an option on my next SF novel and would have been very annoyed if I sold an SF series to someone else. Okay?]] Right after I sold "Singularity Sky" in 2001, my agent said, "you realise it'll be two or three, maybe four, years before Ace publish this?" (Yes, she was wrong.) "Why don't you take a year out to write a big fat fantasy or alternate history series that'll make us lots of money?" At the time, with a magazine in the process of messily going bust owing me a chunk of money for work done, the idea of making lots of money held a certain appeal. But I had to confess immediately that I'd rather give cats enemas for a living than write Extruded Fantasy Product. I used to play D&D in my spotty youth, and the cliches make me itch uncontrollably and swear -- especially when I see them in print. Besides, one Robert Jordan is enough. Eventually, after some brainstorming, I came up with a cold-blooded mission plan: pick a couple of dead authors (i.e. not current competition) and colonize their turf. Hybridize, add some twists of my own, and write *that*. The distinguished dead authors I picked on were: H. Beam Piper and Roger Zelazny, and the turf I decided to pitch my tent on was travel between parallel universes -- a collision between Piper's Paratime stories and Zelazny's Amber (albeit with no goddamn magic). This seems to have worked alarmingly well, and the first volume, "A Family Trade", is due out from Tor in October '04, with two subsequent books due to follow at probably 8-month intervals. (Finishing the third is the next big item on my to-do list.) So. There's actually a list of eight novels now sold, which should be appearing at a rate of three a year (from the beginning of next year). Of these novels, five are finished, two are finished-except-for-the-ending, and one is about 30% written. Which may sound horribly prolific, except there's about a two-year lead time when you first start selling novels, and I'm actually only writing about two books (plus shrapnel) per year. (I'm also doing some other stuff. Short stories for anthologies, a collaboration with Cory, script work for a short Machinima movie, and so on. But that doesn't count ...) Hey, now look what you've gone and made me do! I burped an essay again! I've got to stop doing this ...
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