From Dungeons to Singularity – My Chat with Charles Stross

This week my guest is Charles Stross who is having one hell of a year. The versatile author is nominated for this year’s Hugo for Best Novel for his novel Singularity Sky, not to mention has 2 novellas nominated for the Best Novella of the year.

He is also nominated by Locus this year for Best Science Fiction Novel for Iron Sunrise and for Best Fantasy Novel honors with the first installment of his Merchant Princes series, Family Trade. The second part of the Merchant Princes, The Hidden Family, was just released, and I want to thank Stross for spending some time with me amidst a very busy writing schedule.

Book II of your Merchant Prince series, The Hidden Family was released this month. What can we expect in this sequel to last year’s Family Trade?

Charles Stross — It’s actually the second half of what was originally one big novel. I’d rather not give anything away, although I think it’s reasonable to let slip that there’s a surprise ending — and a third book will be published in June 2006, with more to follow.

One point I’d like to note: Family Trade and The Hidden Family were originally written as a single book. They now constitute a complete two-volume story arc. When I began work on The Clan Corporate I was still thinking of a large book, that would stand beside and follow on from the first — but the story is now constrained to fit a shorter format. Consequently, the new story arc that begins with The Clan Corporate is set to run through three books.

Although decidedly not traditional fantasy, your Merchant Prince series definitely in my opinion leans toward fantasy than your previous works, Toast, The Atrocity Archives, and Singularity Sky which have a decidedly more Science Fiction flavor to them. Did you always want to write a series in this mold, or did the idea come to you recently? If the latter, what inspired it, and do you see yourself writing other works in the same vein?

Charles Stross — I don’t see myself as fitting neatly inside any particular genre category. There are a number of themes and ideas I want to explore; some of these overlap with the traditional genre categories (“science fiction”, “fantasy”, “horror”, “crime”), but as often as not they overlap with more than one such category. The reason for this is that for the most part genre categories are simply a marketing tool — they signal to the retailer that there is a similarity between this particular work and others grouped under the same heading, and if they stick them on the same shelves readers who want one book will hopefully find adjacent ones to their liking.

singularity sky charles stross

The trouble with genre pigeon-holes is that if you apply them as a constraint on the writing itself, you end up with anaemic or stereotyped work. I’ve got a particular personal dislike for what we sometimes call “Extruded Fantasy Product”. EFP is what you get when high fantasy is stripped of its external referents — when people who’ve read only “The Lord of the Rings” try to write something in the same vein, without having studied the sources Tolkien was inspired by, and without any awareness of the historic context of the societies they’re trying to portray. To the extent that I’ve got any ambition whatsoever in “fantasy” it’s to avoid writing EFP (or even anything that can unambiguously be pigeon-holed in one genre category).

While the Merchant Princes books are positioned closer to the fantasy genre than my other books, I think they could legitimately be sold as SF; and likewise, while the cover of The Atrocity Archives brands it as sort-of horror, it could be packaged as SF, or as fantasy, or even as a thriller.

 In July, another project, Accelerando is scheduled to come out. What can you tell us about it?

Charles Stross — Accelerando is a novelization of a series of stories (novelettes and novellas) that I wrote between 1999 and 2004. I think it’s fair to say that it sucked up most of my creative juices during that period. It was murderously difficult to write those stories; in fact, one of them (‘Nightfall’, chapter six of the novel) was so hard to deal with that I wrote Family Trade (in its original 600-page form) in the middle for light relief. Why was a mere story so hard to write that it made a huge fantasy novel seem like light relief?

I’d like to go a little further, now. Accelerando started out as one story, an attempt to distill the sheer weirdness of life in the sharp end of the development team inside a dot com at the height of the boom — not the financial bubble fueled by speculators, but the actual boom in web applications technology that preceded it. We used to joke about “web years”, where there were five web years to the real calendar year: that was how fast that pace of change was moving.

“Lobsters” was set a short distance into the future, a future that back then seemed imminent and optimistic. (It’s shocking how far reality has fallen short of expectations in that regard.) The story seemed to beg a sequel, so I began writing one set five years later — and then I began asking myself, what does it _feel_ like when the rate of change goes exponential?

The singularity isn’t my brain child (that honour goes to Vernor Vinge) but since Vernor introduced it to general circulation in the hard SF field, people have been scared of exploring it. It was one of those immensely powerful structural magic wands that destroy traditional fictional plots. How do you cope with a universe in which human scale thoughts are about as significant to the real course of events as the barking of dogs is to air traffic control? I decided that I was going to go and do a head-first exploration of the issue, by writing a generational saga following three generations of posthumans right through a hard take-off singularity in the mid-twenty first century.

I should warn readers right now that this is almost certainly the *only* book I’m going to write about a Vingean singularity. The title of my earlier novel, Singularity Sky, was dropped on it in response to a marketing request to change the original title (from ‘Festival of Fools’, which was too similar to another novel in Ace’s line-up) — it doesn’t signify anything about the content of the novel. Accelerando is, in contrast, about a singularity, an unconstrained outburst of runaway AI-mediated acceleration in the pace of change.

Along the way I tried to apply to the hoary old chestnut of cyberpunk a technique invented by Bruce Sterling for re-working space opera. Back in 1980–84, Bruce did something extremely interesting: he wrote a series of short pieces (the Mechanist/Shaper stories) that explored a mid-term future solar system in which different posthuman clades with wildly divergent ideologies were competing for resources away from Earth.

The series reached its zenith in the unfairly unrecognized novel, Shismatrix, which I’d highlight as one of the two or three most important SF novels of the 1980’s. Bruce basically reinvented space opera from scratch — and the best description of what he did was given by Vincent Omniaveritas in the cyberpunk house critzine “Cheap Truth” (NB: “Vincent Omniaveritas” was a pseudonym Bruce was using at the time) — “Boils down the three-percent beer of space opera into a jolting postmodern whiskey”.

Other writers would have manufactured a three thousand page far-future tetralogy from this material, but Bruce just shoveled it all into a single novel and turned the heat up until the boiler threatened to explode. He re-thought all the key assumptions of the sub-genre of space opera from scratch, threw out the bits that didn’t make sense, installed replacement motors for cultural and political propulsion, and crammed it all into a decaying Salyut space station held together with blue duct tape with coolant dribbling along the walls, the way *real* space stations are.

Cyberpunk as a form has its roots in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Drop the hard-boiled style (straight out of Chandler, as Sterling pointed out in Cheap Truth #15) and you’re left with a tale of little guys alienated by and from the vast predatory corporate structures. The late 70’s/early 80’s were the hey-day of the corporate raiders, of Michael Milken and James Goldsmith, and the period in which the earlier social compact of the job-for-life and the Company Man went out the window, to be replaced by uncertainty and contrasting grinding poverty and designer glitz.

Part of what I tried to do in Accelerando involved taking the old cyberpunk tropes — and above all, the cultural landscape of cyberpunk is dictated by its obsession with corporations as the New Nobility — and shaking them up. Corporations in Accelerando are life forms, software, genomes engaging in plasmid exchange and in the extreme case, using other sapient organisms as living currency.

Free market economics is merely an ideological crutch, as relevant to the deep future (which in Accelerando telescopes into a mere human-accessible century) as the Divine Right of Kings is to 21st century intellectual property law. Humanity is a disposable commodity — or one you can invest in. In one sense, Accelerando is a gigantic exercise in Rip, Mix, Burn applied to cyberpunk tropes — and I deliberately picked Bruce’s technique to do it. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and besides, applying a cyberpunk master’s deconstructive technique to the subgenre he helped to invent with it appealed to my sense of humour.

But there’s nothing truly original in fiction anyway, because ultimately it’s all rooted in our perception of the present day. And now I’ve gotten it out of my system I’m moving on to other things (including, quite possibly, a novel about what real unchanging permanence in human affairs means).(One final note. As I mentioned, Accelerando in book form is a fix-up based on the original nine stories. I can’t say whether it works well as a book: but so far, the sequence of stories have racked up nine or ten award nominations, including about five nominations for the Hugo award. So *somebody* likes it …)

I saw you started a wiki for Singularity and I was wondering if you would mind if you could comment on that regarding and the motivation behind it how it came about?

Charles Stross — Sure, I’d just come back from holiday and I caught a nose/throat bug on the flight that turned my brain to jelly. While catching up on my web reading at home I stumbled over Tiddly Wiki and thought, “hey, this is cool”. So I decided to start sticking data into it and rapidly discovered it was going in a direction that was compatible with a nose/throat bug that had put me in touch with my inner fourteen-year-old (or, more charitably, lobotomized me).

It’s kind of a sarcastic comment on the way the Singularity can be misused in fiction, as a substitute for Magic Pixie Dust: any sufficiently cliched idea in literature will eventually be misunderstood by fourteen year olds and turned into a bad plot trope in a role playing game. Then I realized I couldn’t sell it as fiction so I stuck it on my website to see how many noses it put out of joint, and crawled back to my sick bed.

 I have read that some of your first work, which surprised me slightly, was for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and some of it made its way in Fiend Folio. What were you contributions?

Charles Stross — The Slaadi. The Githyanki, and relatives; Death Knights, and a couple of others. Originally published in “White Dwarf” around 1978–81. I forget the details — I’ve been out of the RPG scene for 25 years or so.

What other future projects should we be looking forward to that you have planned past the discussed forthcoming releases?

glass house charles stross

Charles Stross — I don’t want to talk about stuff that isn’t fairly definite. I have a bunch of ideas for novels, such that if I had no more ideas from this time forth, it’d take me close to a decade before I began feeling the pinch.

Having said that …

The Atrocity Archives was recently acquired for republication by Berkley Books (a sister imprint to Ace, who run my SF). It’s going to appear in the USA in trade paperback in February 2006, with a mass-market paperback to follow. This is relevant because it’s going to be followed by the next novel in that series, The Jennifer Morgue (currently a work in progress — I hope to be handing in the manuscript in August), which will be published in hardcover by Golden Gryphon in November ’06, with paperbacks from Berkley to follow.

I really like this particular series (thrillers about the British secret service for protecting us from the Lovecraftian horrors that lurk beyond the universe, as told from the point of view of the more than somewhat geekish Bob, a hacker who’s fallen into the British civil service and can’t escape). They’re fun to write, although not always easy — humour and horror make an interesting mixture to balance out.

Behind the next Laundry novel, I’ve got to do the next couple of Merchant Princes books (#4 is completely outlined, while the plan for #5 is still on the drawing board). They’ll be dropping back to an annual release tempo after The Hidden Family, so we’re talking about publication dates in 2007–2008.

I also need to do another couple of SF novels. After Accelerando comes Glasshouse, a psychological thriller set some 500 years later — this is awaiting a final polish before I send it in, and it’s due out in July ‘06.

There may be a third, interstitial novel (working title, “Juggernaut”) exploring some disturbing aspects of the Accelerando universe — and there may also be a final novel in the sequence beginning with Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, or there might not be. At this stage, I’m still speculating about what to do next — none of these possible projects could be published before 2007 — and I’m not ready to commit to any of them yet.

Can you recommend some examples of both Science Fiction and Fantasy to all of us looking for quality reads?

Charles Stross — If you haven’t already heard of or read Schismatrix, by Bruce Sterling, you’re missing one of the classics of the 80’s. It hasn’t dated, which is rather remarkable, and it is currently in print in an edition called Schismatrix Plus, which collects all the Mechanist/Shaper stories as an extra.

Newer works … I’m a bad person to ask, because (a) I don’t have enough time for recreational reading these days — after you’ve spent all day slaving over a hot novel you don’t want to switch off by *reading* one of the things — and (b) to mention one implies not mentioning others. But I’m going to give a strong recommendation to several British writers who you may not have run across, who are just now beginning to gain traction in selling into the US. Ian MacDonald is better published in the UK, and his latest work, River of Gods, can be pointed to as a masterpiece.

Anything recent you can track down by Jon Courtenay Grimwood is good, in particular the Arabesk trilogy and Stamping Buterflies. John Meaney writes truly excellent kick-ass far future hard-SF, and is now published in the US by Pyr. Liz Williams, Tricia Sullivan, Ken MacLeod, Iain Banks, Justina Robson … there’s a huge fermenting pile of talent coming out of the UK these days and I simply can’t itemize them all.

On the fantasy front, China Mieville is the obvious name to raise. But I’ve been reading even less fantasy than SF lately, so I can’t really go any further than that.

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