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March, 2006 : Interview:

Searching for Scottish Ghosts, Stardust and Causality Violations

An Interview with Charles Stross

It was a pleasure to interview Charles, um...sorry, Charlie Stross. He is a writer of great vision and aptitude, so much so that at times it's uncanny. He is a man of a million ideas, each one percolating and burning synapses like a thousand lightning bolts going off simultaneously. And from the depths of this creative firestorm he has spawned some excellent tales.

Charlie's a part of a new wave of British science fiction writers whose focus is on a combination of hard science fiction and space opera. He's been published in such seminal magazines as Asimov's and Interzone. Several of his novels and novellas, such as Singularity Sky, "Lobsters" and "Nightfall" have been nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon and BSFA awards. His novella, "The Concrete Jungle", won the Hugo award last year. He's also written several role-playing articles for White Dwarf. He and Cory Doctorow even co-wrote a collection of short stories entitled The Rapture of the Nerds.

ML: How did you find yourself becoming involved in the world of science fiction?

CS: I've been reading SF since virtually as soon as I learned to use the public library—I think I was five years old when I first ran across Andre Norton's books—and so it was a logical progression to begin writing it myself. (It took me a bit longer to run across SF fandom, but I wandered into my first SF convention around the time I turned 20.)

ML: In the past, your work has been compared to that of Bruce Sterling, among others, and esteemed science fiction editor Gardner Dozois deemed you one of the best new SF writers to emerge in years. Do comparisons and accolades of that nature motivate you or are they a bit intimidating?

CS: It's very intimidating! Especially as it started about fifteen years after I first sold a short story, and quite abruptly at that. On the other hand, I suspect all of the most-esteemed authors in the field have been there: at one moment they're just somebody slaving away over a typewriter or word processor, and the next minute, they're surrounded by hordes of adoring nubile groupies. (Actually, if you want the adoring nubile groupies you need to pick a different profession. Writing is what you go into if you want to still have a career when the groupies have figured out you're a bit on the old side.)

The oddest sensation is meeting fans who're familiar with your work and feel as if they know you, but who you've never met. They often behave unconsciously as if there's a pre-existing relationship as they try to start a conversation, rather than introducing themselves to a stranger, and you find yourself racking your brain furiously, trying to figure out where you've met this person before and what their name is! It's sort of the opposite of déjà vu.

ML: Please tell us about your latest novels, The Clan Corporate and Glasshouse.

CS: First things first: The Clan Corporate is the third book in an ongoing series, Merchant Princes, that started with The Family Trade and The Hidden Family. There are more in the pipeline. These books are stylistically different from the hardcore SF I'm publishing via Ace, in that rather being fixated with future technologies and space exploration and so forth—the traditional trappings of hard SF—they focus on social change and a collision between alien cultures. The basic premise is an old one. A group of people has the ability to travel between our world and one or more parallel universes; a stranger falls among them; skullduggery and politics ensue. But there's a lot more going on than meets the eye in the first couple of books. Indeed, The Clan Corporate marks the point at which the earlier, naive treatment of some rather prickly issues (such as political and economic transfers between wildly different systems) is shown up as a red herring and the real critique of empire begins. With, for instance, the USA government circa 2002, in the thick of the War on Terror and getting their hands on the ability to explore parallel universes.

Glasshouse is, in contrast, about as far away from that as it's possible to get. Set some five centuries after the time where Accelerando finishes, it's basically a psychological thriller among the posthumans. If your mind can be uploaded and copied into another body, and if your memories can be edited, then who are you? And if you think that a long time ago, in another body, you might have committed atrocities—but you can no longer remember anything about it—what does that make you? Robin, the protagonist of Glasshouse, is damaged: he's emerging from personality surgery thirty years after the end of a vicious civil war with huge holes in his memory and someone is trying to kill him. What's worse, his earlier self has left him messages. But he can't be sure they're not lying...

ML: What was the creative motivation behind your character Wednesday Shadowmist from your novel Iron Sunrise?

CS: Simple: I wanted a deracinated, alienated, teenage heroine to go walkabout and tackle the Space Nazis. The original elevator pitch for Iron Sunrise was "teenage Goth chick and her talking cat versus the Space Nazis" but the talking cat got dropped from the second draft.

ML: You've been accused of writing leftist political commentary reminiscent of Ken MacLeod's. Do you agree with this assessment?

CS: I'm actually a traditional, politically middle-of-the-road Brit who votes for a mainstream political party (the Liberal Democrats), and who's scratching his head in perplexity at the way politics has gone veering off in a rightward direction since 1979. If we momentarily accept the new topsy-turvy world in which the likes of Tony Blair can be portrayed as "left wing" or even "centrist" in any meaningful sense of the world, then yes, I suppose I've been left standing and I'm now on the left. But I don't really accept that the hijacking of the post-WWII social democratic European consensus by a bunch of born-again corporatists was either a good thing, or inevitable, so.

What I will state, firmly and in public, is that politics is a whole lot more complex than simplistic labels ("left wing" and "right wing," "liberal" and "conservative") imply. And it's also a whole lot more interesting. Back in the nineteenth century, for example, the entire bipolar political dialectic that dominated the Victorian scene was between the Benthamite utilitarian social engineers and the Liberals—which is to say, the group who today are trying to rebadge themselves as "Libertarians." Yes, Libertarianism has been tried before, as the main political ideology of a superpower. And it was found wanting. Both groups were also at odds with the Chartists, who were seen as revolutionary radicals...and yet, the Chartist agenda actually triumphed to the point where today, to question it is to label yourself as a way-out-there weirdo, although the movement itself is largely forgotten.

If we can recognize just how far the political universe of discourse has shifted in just a century, then doesn't it make sense to also speculate about where it might end up a century hence?

ML: I've enjoyed your collaborative stories with Cory Doctorow and some of your writing has even been compared to his. Did you enjoy this coupling and do you have any collaborative projects planned with him in the future? Maybe a sequel to The Rapture of the Nerds?

CS: Collaborating with Cory varies between playing a fun game of table tennis and pulling each other's teeth without benefit of anesthesia. We bounce ideas and chunks of story back and forth until they begin to mesh together. I don't know when we're going to find the time to do some more work together—both of us are busy right now—but we're both keen on the idea, and it's possible we may even get it together to work on a novel one of these days.

ML: You earned a degree in pharmacology. Have you ever found the occasion to use this knowledge in your fiction?

CS: Pharmacy, not pharmacology. It's like the difference between mechanical engineering and physics. It's useful to have a grounding in biochemistry, pharmacology, and the biological sciences, and it's surprising to note how badly they're often treated in SF, but I don't think I've made overt use of that background in the same way I have with computer science. I subsequently did a computer science degree and worked in the IT industry for some years.

ML: I read that you published role-playing game articles for White Dwarf magazine and were an avid Advanced Dungeons & Dragons player. When you have the time, do you still play?

CS: Nope, I pretty much gave up when I went to university. Doesn't stop me playing online games such as Neverwinter Nights—although I try to keep the time I spend on them under control!

ML: Your novel, Accelerando, was recently published by Ace publishers in the U.S., but it originally appeared as a series of nine short stories in Asimov's. Accelerando attempts to map humanity's transhuman evolution across the expanse of this new century. Could you elaborate further on this concept? And what about the Fermi Paradox?

CS: Accelerando was written as a series of stories, but with an overall novel-length story arc in mind virtually from the start (to trace three generations of a family, and follow them through a Singularity). And it was also written as a kind of experiment. After Vernor Vinge articulated the idea of the Singularity back in the late '80s/early '90s, the conventional wisdom for some years was that this was impossible to write about. But from 1995 onwards, I was working in the web industry and then for a successful, and things were moving really fast—outrageously fast. The, for example, went from two guys writing code in an office in Edinburgh and another guy selling it in London, to forty people in a company on three sites going public on AIM (the London equivalent of NASDAQ) in just forty-two months. At one point I was seeing 30% compound growth per month in the workload my code was having to support. When you're in that kind of environment, you begin to think crazy thoughts about the rate of change, and it acquires a tangible presence: you begin to factor ongoing acceleration into all your plans. Once I got the idea of following the human onlookers (rather than trying to chart the internal machinations of AIs experiencing a Singularity) it fell into place that you could write about a Singularity. And, yes, this is the last Singularity novel I plan to write.

The Fermi paradox is another high-concept idea that doesn't get anything like enough air play in SF. One of the problems we've been left with, the heritage of the adventure genres that predate modern SF's emergence in the 1920s, is the idea of interstellar travel. The distances involved are huge...but so are the time scales. If interstellar travel is possible, and if intelligent life is not unique to this planet, then we should by rights have been visited by aliens not once but thousands of times over the past few billion years. So where, as Enrico Fermi asked, are they?

One answer is: space is vast, and intelligent tool-using life short-lived. We have no evidence that the life expectancy of a machine-building civilization exceeds five hundred years before some sort of catastrophic collapse overcomes it. Another is: they find somewhere better to go. Deep space is inaccessible but deep time may be another matter.

The pet theory I played with in Accelerando was that the stumbling block would be bandwidth. By the time interstellar travel becomes practical, the entities contemplating it will be software-based and running much faster than the sluggish rate enforced by our laughable dependence on electrochemistry and peptides held in place by hydrogen bonds. Humans are much less adapted to space travel than software. But there's a cost associated with this, which is that if you can get as much thinking done in a year as a meat-body does in a century, then even if you can travel at half the speed of light, a light year is a distance that will subjectively take you two hundred years to cross. A software intelligence may have access to a whole bunch of techniques that we can't envisage—but it's still going to have real trouble staying up to date with events back home if it goes on a journey lasting subjective millennia. Especially as the computational capabilities available to it will be restricted by the matter and energy available to the payload of a starship. If the corollary of a Singularity-type event is that interstellar distances suddenly look much more daunting, then that's one possible answer to Fermi's paradox.

ML: One critic, and I apologize for using that word here, accused you of writing futuristic hard science fiction with far too many modern clichés. What is your response to this criticism?

CS: This is a criticism that's been applied to Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, and I know where the critics are coming from. I think it's a straw man argument. A straw man argument is, in its modern context, what you get when party A defines party B's position on a subject in such terms that it's easy to knock it down. Which is an interesting definition in its own right, because it has evolved very little since the early eighteenth century, when the term first came into widespread use. This following the practice of professional paid perjurers (or straw men—so called because they could be found waiting outside the Old Bailey in London with a piece of straw in their belt buckle as a discreet sign) who would take money to provide an accused criminal with an alibi.

Just because we're dealing with a shiny new future, it does not follow that the present (or the past) has gone away. Especially in a shiny new future populated in part by crumbly retreads who were born during the twenty-first century.

The flipside of this criticism has, I should note, been applied to Neal Stephenson (especially acutely in the case of his Baroque Cycle). It's more obviously bogus when you start accusing a modern writer of using modern language in a historical novel, because if you take the argument to its logical conclusion you end up condemning authors of historical fiction who, say, write about the Wars of the Roses without using Norman French, or who write thrillers set in ancient Rome but who don't write in Latin. Any work of fiction written for today's readers must to some extent engage with their world-view and understanding. The further you stray from that world-view, the more alien your worlds will seem—but the smaller you will make the audience who can appreciate it.

ML: You live in Scotland in a flat that you said is older than the state of Texas. Any ghosts or odd activity to speak of there?

CS: Nope, no ghosts. (Actually, the flat turns out to be younger than Texas—although the plans for the development it's part of are older.) I mention this semi-jokingly, because it illustrates the old joke: "To an Englishman, a hundred miles is a long distance—to an American, a hundred years is a long time." I live in a city where there's a large area known as the New Town, because it was built in the mid-eighteenth century (the Old Town is medieval). If you're writing for people who aren't used to living on the bones of an ancient civilization, you can use that kind of background for pleasure and profit in your writing, or at least for atmosphere.

ML: So what is this Scottish Socialist SF Cabal that you've been accused of being a member of? Is it anything like the Irish Libertarian Historical Fantasy Unionists?

CS: I'm not really socialist; I'm a boringly middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrat voter, a party that until very recently used to be considered to be right in the middle of British politics, between the Conservatives and the Labour Party. (Then, politics here turned's confusing, so I'll skip over it.) On the other hand, the whole universe of British politics is a long way to the left of American politics (or rather, U.S. politics is w-a-y to the right of every other developed nation), so I can play the socialist firebrand agitator for that part of the peanut gallery who care about such things.

And it can be argued that I'm not really Scottish; I've lived here for a decade, but I was born south of the border and if you want to pin my ethnicity down, the nearest you'll get is "middle-European Jewish cosmopolitan transplant to Yorkshire." Which is, let's face it, not your traditional Scottish ethnicity.

But I sometimes go to the pub with Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks. And there's feedback—a dialog of ideas, I guess—among SF authors in general, and I'm guilty of riffing off of some of Ken's ideas (and vice versa, I think).

ML: I think to a degree every artist, regardless of the medium, be it painting, poetry, fiction, sculpture, movies or whatever, rips someone off from time to time. It's the nature of the beast, so to speak.

ML: It has been said that science fiction writers are notoriously bad at accurately predicting the future, but what about interpreting the past?

CS: That, I think, is a question for Neal Stephenson, whose master work, the Baroque Cycle, does exactly that with stupefying brilliance and economy.

The past is definitely an alien world, populated by people whose fundamental view of the way their world works is utterly different from our own. People who were not stupid, or foolish or even necessarily misguided—but for whom things were simply unimaginably different. Stephenson did something truly prodigious in his application of science fictional world-building techniques to a historical epoch—the period of about sixty years that gave birth to the Enlightenment and the modern system of the world—and I think the implications will be sinking into the SF zeitgeist for years to come.

Meanwhile, I think it's fair to say that SF writers who try to invent futures or alien societies in ignorance of history do both themselves and their readers a disservice. SF is all too often merely the reflection of today's preoccupations and neuroses on the silver screen of the future—adding a chunk of historical perspective makes the moving pictures somehow feel more three-dimensional (and a whole lot weirder).

ML: Your novel, Singularity Sky, one American reviewer said that you were essentially retelling the Russo-Japanese War. Is that true?

CS: Partially: the journey of the New Republic's fleet to Rochard's World was, in some measure, a retelling of the voyage of the Russian Baltic Fleet from Libau to Tsushima in 1905-06. It was then, and remains today, the longest naval cruise in military history, one of the most impressive, quixotic and just plain stupid expeditions ever.

To recap: in 1905 when the Russo-Japanese war broke out, the Russian Far Eastern fleet was sunk rapidly by the Japanese, who then besieged Port Arthur. The Russians sent their Baltic fleet, a collection of semi-seaworthy clunkers crewed by conscript peasants (many of whom had never seen the sea before), to steam the long way around Europe and Africa, across the Indian Ocean, and to the Sea of Japan to lift the siege. That's a mere 20,000 miles aboard coal-burning, 1880s vintage steamers that in some cases were barely seaworthy. While crossing the North Sea, they mistook the British Hull trawler fleet for Japanese torpedo boats and nearly started a war with Great Britain; they holed up in Madagascar for eight months while Tsarist agents raked South America for second-hand battleships to buttress the fleet, sailors went mad and died raving, and destroyers were overrun by monkeys. In the course of the voyage, they perfected the technique of re-coaling at sea, refueling their ships thirty times en route and burning half a million tons of coal. It was by any estimate an epic voyage...but when they finally entered the Straits of Tsushima, they were spotted by Admiral Togo's fleet and wiped out in the most one-sided naval engagement since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

This aspect of the book was, to some extent, the result of my extreme irritation with the "Napoleonics in space" sub-genre of space opera—the variety in which huge fleets of space battleships, equipped and trained to curiously similar levels, duke it out in traditional style. I just wanted to point out that in a real conflict between interstellar civilizations, your Napoleonic navy would be as likely to run up against the equivalent of dug-out canoes or a nuclear ballistic missile submarine. Alas, it suffered the drawback of an all-too-predictable ending (I'm not going to do that again if I can help it).

ML: I heard you're a bit of connoisseur when it comes to microbrewery beer? Ever try the oyster beer made at Bushy's Pub & Brewery on the Isle of Man?

CS: I'm not the beer expert—that's my wife's specialty (she has on occasion worked as a brewer at a local microbrewery here in Scotland that now is sadly defunct). There are so many species of real ale in the UK that I'd be risking death from alcoholism if I attempted to sample them all. Having said that, I've got something of a weakness for IPAs (the British variety, basically a highly-hopped bitter that's been stored somewhere warm for several months, not the much more elaborately spiced American varieties) and for continental Weiss biers.

ML: You've written extensively on the concept of the Vingean Singularity, where the rate of technological advancement occurs so rapidly that the future cannot be predicted. Do you think we are currently being affected as a culture by this theorem?

CS: I'm not sure. Despite having written about the Singularity, I remain an agnostic about whether it's actually a possibility. I've worked in a field where any attempt at developing a business roadmap more than thirty-six months in the future was considered blue-sky speculation, but that doesn't extrapolate to cover the rest of our culture.

What I can see happening is this: today, for about a month's average wage (for a worker in the developed world) you can, in forty-eight hours, travel to the Antipodes. Back up 200 years to 1805 and for about the same amount of money you could, in the same amount of time, travel across the English home counties or, maybe, Massachusetts or one of the other original New England states.

The entire world has been squeezed down to the size of a small state or a couple of counties circa 1805. And that's just travel-in-the-flesh; communications have made the world even smaller.

One of the projects Google are pouring a lot of money into is machine translation, using huge corpuses of translated text to come up with probabilistic-based phrase-level conversions rather than the more traditional parser and lexical analyzer based systems. If and when this pays off (and there's a huge amount of money riding on it), the implications are explosive. Hitherto we've only had access to that part of the world information sphere that someone was willing to pay a human to translate (or that we could read for ourselves, or someone was willing to translate for free). Along with things like the proposed $100 universal laptop for kids everywhere, and the $10 Third World cell phone, this is going to change things more than we can imagine. The English-speaking world has a huge and powerful collective media culture, but it's still only about a tenth of the planet's potential media culture; the rest simply isn't joined up yet. Useful machine translation is going to have more of an impact than the internet (into which it will be woven).

Another thing to note: the rise of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. These are the first networked, distributed, multi-person virtual reality environments to be commercially successful. And some of them have now hit the million user mark.

In a decade's time, our cell phones will contain processors as powerful as today's high end gaming computers. We'll be expecting wifi-level data rates on our phones for free (while the real broadband at home will exceed the sensory bandwidth of your nervous system), and we'll be grappling with new technologies such as ubiquitous location services.

This is the stuff Vernor Vinge is currently writing about. His next novel, Rainbows End, is due out next April—highly recommended,and it's what I'll be writing about in my next-but-one SF novel, Halting State, due in 2007. I'm pretty sure that the world in 2015 is going to be much more disturbingly different from 2005 than 2005 is from 1995. And that's saying a lot.

ML: How do you feel about the current state of science fiction? Are there any writers that stand out in your mind as breaking new ground and elevating the genre as a whole? Any particular novels out there, other than your own, that you feel deserve attention?

CS: SF is alive and kicking; whether it remains relevant to the human condition is a topic I'll leave to the critics, thanks.

One warning I should give is that I am not current on my reading. Writing takes up a lot of time, and when you've spent all day slaving over a hot word processor you don't tend to want to relax by reading something challenging in your own field.

Important novels folks need to read: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge stands out as the most interesting near-future treatment I've read recently. Then there's Counting Heads by David Marusek, which is gathering a huge buzz and for good reasons—it's another near-future novel (set about 200 years hence) that explores issues of identity and reality in a post-nanotechnology, post-human world. If I'm going to round this out to a trilogy, there's Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder; another fascinating look at a future in which our perceptions of the surrounding reality are subject to editing and some ideas about what that might mean.

And if you're looking for insanely great world-building and the big ideas that define civilizations, Neal Stephenson's huge trilogy is the place to go.

ML: Charlie, it's been a pleasure talking with you. If you want to learn more about Charlie and his novels, go to his homepage or go to his blog.

You can also check out Charlie's novel, Accelerando, which has been released as a free ebook under Creative Common license.

Charlie's short story, "Rogue Farm", has been made into a machinima film.

When next we visit with Charlie Stross, we'll be getting tanked up on a couple of bottles of Isle of Jura whisky and attacking Swiss tourists with haggis pies as they attend the annual Edinburgh Marching Bagpipe Tattoo. Don't wait up...

Copyright © 2006, Michael Lohr. All Rights Reserved.

About Michael Lohr

Michael Lohr is professional writer/journalist, university researcher and professional treasure hunter. He is a Fellow with the Mudlark Society of the British Museum in London. He is a world explorer and belongs to many adventuring groups including The Explorerís Club; Global Research and Discovery Network; the International Metal Detectorist & Artifact Recovery Association based in Lisbon, Portugal; National Geographic Society and the World Mountain Institute.

His webpage can be found at:


Mar 13, 15:39 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of Charlie Stross.

Michael Lohr's interview is here.
Mar 14, 03:33 by A.R. Yngve
Good interview. More of that please! Could you get Vernor Vinge...?

Mar 21, 09:12 by Dario Ciriello
The best interview I've read in forever. Charlie's intelligence is like a cutting torch.

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