PaperBackSwap Blog

Author Interview with Charles Stross

An interview with Charles Stross by Trey

Born in Leeds, England, Charles Stross knew he wanted to be a science fiction writer from an early age. He 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 sale to Interzone in 1986, and sold about a dozen stories elsewhere throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s before a dip in his writing career. He began writing fiction in earnest again in 1998.
Along the way to his current occupation, he went to university in London and qualified as a pharmacist. 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 went back to university in Bradford and did a postgraduate conversion degree in computer science. After several tech sector jobs in the hinterlands around London, initially in technical publications and then in UNIX, he emigrated to Edinburgh, Scotland, and ended up in web programming consultancy and a subsequent dot-com death march at Datacash.
All good things come to an end, and Stross made the critical career error of accepting an employment offer he couldn’t refuse in early 2000, just as the bottom dropped out of the first dot-com bubble (taking his new job with it). However, he had a parachute: he was writing a monthly Linux column for Computer Shopper, and by a hop, a skip and a jump that would be denounced as implausible by any self-respecting editor, he managed to turn his unemployment into an exciting full time career opportunity as a freelance journalist specializing in Linux and free software. Even more implausibly, after fifteen years of abject obscurity, his fiction became a runaway success and he found himself earning more as a novelist than he ever had as a programmer.
He now writes fiction full-time, has sold around 16 novels, has won one Hugo award (the novella “Concrete Jungle”) and been nominated nearly a dozen times, and has been translated into about a dozen languages. He’s also won the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction with Glasshouse.
He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife Feorag, a couple of cats, several thousand books, and an ever-changing herd of obsolescent computers.

Trey: First, thank you for agreeing to this interview Charlie.

If I remember correctly, you started writing Halting State, and its forthcoming sequel, Rule 34, because you wanted to write a world you wouldn’t mind living in. After all, some very bad things happen to the planet and humanity in general in Accelerando, Glasshouse, Saturn’s Children, Singularity Sky and The Family Trade, and the potential for some awful things to happen are in the Laundry novels. Is that still the case as of Rule 34?

Charlie: Yes.

Rule 34 is about as close a projection of where we might be in 2023 that I can come up with. It’s a police procedural, so of necessity it deals with some icky bits, but it’s a police procedural set in a future that is basically civilized, and has found coping strategies for dealing with today’s problems such as climate change and peak oil and corporate ethics. Some of the strategies work, some don’t — but it’s not about survivors eating their neighbours in the ruins or getting a Magic Solution to Everything handed to them on a plate by a prophet who is a thinly-disguised Mary Sue for the author’s pet hobby-horses.

In other words, it’s a world I expect to live in (although I’d like to avoid the messy bits that are the focus of the novel, if you don’t mind). Doubtless my expectations will change over the next 12 years.

Trey: I know that you had to keep changing the nature of the plot of Rule 34 as real life kept out performing your imagination for the criminal plots. What were some of the earlier versions of the plot? And how did the real world over take them?

Charlie: It wasn’t just criminal plots; it was more a case of Rule 34 being an attempt at a realistic projection of our world about 10-15 years hence. That’s always a risky time-frame even if you write it in narrow-focus (for example, a detective novel won’t paint much of a picture of global politics). When the global financial system nearly crashed in 2008 I realized I had a big problem with my existing plot, which centered on a rather outrageous economic crime; then Bernie Madoff came out of the woodwork and I realized I’d been thinking way too small. So it was back to the drawing board for a whole, and — of necessity — push the project back a year while the big picture stabilized. So I got my publishers’ permission and wrote The Fuller Memorandum, which was already under contract, a year ahead of schedule to buy myself some time.

Trey: 3D printing and mini-factories are moving from science fiction to something that can be bought by a hobbyist (sort of like computing in the early 80’s). And it plays a role in Rule 34 in both interesting and disturbing ways – where did you get the ideas for this? And do you see it going down that path in reality?

Charlie: It’s been kicking around in the zeitgeist for years. Also (cheat code coming up) it’s always a good idea for any SF author who wants to be on what passes for the cutting edge to keep a close eye on what Bruce Sterling is up to. Bruce has consistently been a decade ahead of the field for, well, decades: and he’s been _very_ interested in design and small scale fabrication and rapid prototyping since the turn of the century. And I’ve been running across people doing weird shit with 3D printers for the past few years. And a postgraduate law researcher who was looking into the intellectual property implications of 3D printing and coming to some very unexpected conclusions — copyright and in some cases patent coverage do not apply! — and it all seems to be coming together.

Trey: I’ve enjoyed reading your female characters – Rachel Mansour, Sue Smith and Elaine Barnaby, Oshi Adjani and Miriam Beckstein – how do you wind up writing them as well as you do?

Charlie: It’s not hard: I just try to give them the same level of realistic ideation that I’d give a male protagonist. I’m more surprised that many male SF authors don’t take more pains to get their female characters right. Women are people too, and they’re probably the majority of the reading audience!

Trey: One of the characters in Rule 34, the Toymaker, is one of the most disturbing viewpoint characters I’ve encountered in fiction in years. Where did you get the information to put together a viewpoint for a sociopathic character like you did?

Charlie: Actually, the Toymaker is loaded up — he’s both a paranoid schizophrenic and a sociopath — although one of these conditions is a long term side-effect of medication intended to treat the other. (Many neuroleptic drugs have bizarre and unpleasant side-effects, and we don’t actually have any medications for sociopathy/reduced empathy, so I decided to invent one, along with plausible undesirable effects …)

There are a lot of sociopaths out there: about 2% of the population, by some estimates. But it’s a spectrum disorder. Most sociopaths aren’t knife-wielding serial killers, they’re just people who have a depressed ability to feel empathy for or model the internal emotional states of other human beings or animals. One side-effect of this is a lack of guilt or embarrassment. Got a thrill-seeking friend who’s a bit narcissistic and lies shamelessly? Odds are they’re a bit sociopathic. Then we go all the way to the far end of the spectrum and find the predators who end up in high-security prisons because, despite being utterly free of moral qualms, they’re not actually supermen and most of the criminal ones get caught. An interesting thing to note is that sociopaths/psychopaths don’t anticipate punishment and so are virtually undeterred by the threat of criminal sanctions. (Which feeds into my point about our legal systems being broken.)

Finally, there’s another category of sociopath out there: the corporation. Corporations are granted many of the rights of individual humans in law, but they’re _not_ human: they’re machines for maximizing revenue flow. While a well-run corporation abides within the letter of the law, there’s no conscience there, no empathy other than that which the employees bring to their day job, and if they exercise empathy to the detriment of the company’s interests they can be fired. Successful corporations tend to be a bit sociopathic, and the climate of modern capitalism is if anything structured to promote sociopathic behaviour.

Trey: In 2002 you had a thought provoking essay on the Panopticon Singularity. How has that essay been superseded in the past 9 years? Or filtered into your works?

Charlie: Rule 34 is the panopticon singularity novel. It comes from a throwaway idea by Vernor Vinge — that perhaps one of the limiting factors on the survival of technological singularity would be the development of tools of ubiquitous law enforcement, such that all laws can be enforced — or infringements detected — automatically.

Our lawmakers are out of control.

In the period 1997-2010, in the UK, the then Labour government created an average of one new criminal offence (felony) for every day Parliament was in session. I asked a couple of legal experts how many actual chargeable offences there were in the English legal system; they couldn’t give an exact answer but suggested somewhere in the range 5000-20,000. The situation in the USA is, however, much, much worse, with different state and federal legal systems and combinations of felonies; the true number may be over a million, and a tax code so large that no single human being can be familiar with all of it (but failure to comply is frequently felonious).
Now, most of the time most of these laws don’t affect most of us. But there’s a key principle of law, that ignorance is no defence: I’m willing to bet that most human beings are guilty of one or more crimes, be they smoking a joint or underage sex or speeding or forgetting to declare earnings, or failing to file the paperwork for some sort of permit we don’t even know exists. We are all potentially criminals.

Meanwhile we have a legal system based on the theory that human beings possess free will, that they commit crimes out of malice, and that the threat or actual delivery of punishment is necessary to keep them in line. All of which are arguably invalid assumptions, if what behavioural psychology tells us is correct.

How do you run a complex society that relies on most people staying within agreed behavioural limits most of the time, if your legal system is not merely broken but can’t be fixed because it’s based on false premises?
(That’s what Rule 34 asks …)

Trey: It has been said that history is the secret resource of science fiction – and I’ve read many novels that were thinly disguised versions of historical events. You, on the other hand, seem to have largely avoided that (with the exception of the New Republic fleet in Singularity Sky). How did you do that? And more importantly, why?

Charlie: I don’t avoid it; it’s just that history never repeats exactly the same pattern, so it’s lazy writing to use an historical event without mangling it out of recognition! Also, a lot of my plots tend to focus on micro-level details so that the background patterns of history aren’t immediately obvious.

The Merchant Princes series did draw on history to some extent — on the evolution and development of mediaeval states, on the problems of economic development, and (extensively) on the collapse of the first British empire (which, in one of the time lines our protagonists explore, went very differently — thanks to a different outcome from a committee meeting held on a rainy Sunday in spring of 1745 in a palace in Edinburgh).

Trey: What is next up for you? Any new projects in the works?

Charlie: Plenty. I’m currently working in parallel on the fourth Laundry novel (The Apocalypse Codex) and on a collaboration with Cory Doctorow (The Rapture of the Nerds), both due for publication in 2012. In the work queue behind them, there’s a far future deep space novel (Neptune’s Brood), and then a near future political farce (The Lambda Functionary) — both sold, so barring catastrophes they’ll see print in the next couple of years, although I’m still at the note-taking stage on both projects.

I don’t generally comment on stuff that isn’t sold, though, so if you don’t mind I’m going to keep quiet about more speculative stuff. In any case, what I’ve just described is my bread and butter through 2013 …

Trey: How does it feel to keep getting nominated for the Prometheus Award for libertarian SF? Especially since it doesn’t seem like you aim your novels at that segment.

Charlie: It’s amusing. But I should like to note that Libertarian SF is a broad church, encompassing social libertarianism (“legalise cannabis!”) as well as economic libertarianism (“Ayn Rand is God!”). I can sign on for one but not the other; and in any event, examining issues surrounding the human existential condition — including, yes, liberty — is part of my shtick.

Trey: Outside of a desire to eat and keep a roof over your head, what motivates you to write?
Charlie: It’s fun. Or rather, I have these crazy ideas and when I let enough of them escape onto the pages people send me books to sign — and holding them is fun.

Oh, and also to keep the cats’ vet bills paid. (They’re elderly and cantankerous and don’t have insurance.)

Trey: What non-science fiction books would you suggest for your fans?

Charlie: I’m currently working my way through Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt, and making slow going. (Reason: something very weird has happened to Europe in the past two-thirds of a century — for the first time ever there’s a hegemonic expanding power in Europe that the countries on the periphery are queuing up to join rather than arming up to fight to the death! Furthermore, the last time we went this long without an invading army crossing the Rhine was the height of the Roman Empire. This phenomenon is truly remarkable because it’s truly unprecedented, and I want to get my head around it because it may be one of the most significant historic changes of the 21st and 22nd centuries.)

Trey: Favorite beer when you’re in the US?

I’m partial to a Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA — but only one of an evening, and usually at the end!

Trey:Thanks again Charlie. I’m looking forward to seeing Rule 34 in print.


Thank you Trey and Charles Stross for a great interview! Charles Stross has generously offered a copy of his new book, Rule 34 to a member who comments on this interview. The winner will be chosen at random. Good Luck!

Tags: , ,

11 Responses to “Author Interview with Charles Stross”

  1. Stephanie G. (thestephanieloves) says:

    Great interview, Trey! Charles, I look forward to reading Rule 34. Welcome to PBS!


  2. James L. (JimiJam) says:

    Thank you both for this interview! It’s fantastic, and did a perfect job of illustrating (and advertising) the brilliance of the author’s work. As a would-be author, I always find the insights on the craft presented by interviews to be invaluable; as a science fiction fan, this particular interview spoke volumes to me, and is easily my favorite so far. I find the concept of the technological singularity to be intriguing, as well as a bit frightening. For both its scope and its seeming inevitability (provided we live long enough to see it), it’s a perfect basis for classically speculative sci-fi. Mr. Stross is right, history *does* repeat, though in modernized form, and to explore the possible outcomes of modernity is almost a duty of any respectable sci-fi author. It makes for poignant storylines, and, in my experience, the most enjoyable and mind-opening reading experiences. I will definitely make a point to pursue some of this Charles’ work in the immediate future!

  3. Nikki g says:

    Thanks for the interview! I’m glad you work equally on characters that are male and female, I wish more authors were like you. I can’t wait to read Rule 34!

  4. Max Eisenberg says:

    Great interview! I have a copy of Accelerando here that I really need to get to… after reading this, I think I’ll pull it out.

  5. Lori B. says:

    Trey, that was a very interesting interview! I like what Charles Stross was saying about laws and sociopaths. Potential punishments are no deterrant when you just can’t care. A million laws in the US and being ignorant of them is no defense. I intend to explore some of his worlds real soon. Thanks!

  6. Vicky T. (VickyJo) says:

    Excellent interview…great job Trey! This is yet another new-to-me author that I need to check out. Thanks to Mr. Stross for taking the time to share his thoughts with us here.

  7. Alison S. (Zylyn) , says:

    Nice interview – Rapture of the Nerds – HAH! It’s always a pleasure to read Stross – I just finished a short story continuing in the world of Saturn’s Children with robot zombies (Engineering Infinity). Looking forward to the new books and new ideas. (I think 3D printing is amazing and am surprised we don’t see more of it in current SF.)

  8. Michael BF says:

    Great interview. I can hardly wait for Rule 34 now, if it’s about a fundamentally untenable justice system inside a slowly growing Panopticon. Hopefully the extra time came in handy, Charlie has great ideas, but his latter books could use another draft to polish up the wordsmithing and characterization. But what the hell, if I want High Literature, I’ll read the New Yorker.

    And he has great taste in beer!

  9. Tom H. (TomHl) says:

    Very interesting interview – and now I think that I need to read this new book too.

    Maybe this would be a good place to pass along a word I made up to describe Singularity Sky – “Habsburgpunk”. What do you think?

    -Tom Hl.

  10. R. E. (re) says:

    About your “something very weird has happened to Europe in the past two-thirds of a century ” and I agree. Our world is a strange and very different place, these days.

    GREAT interview. Interesting remarks. Tho’t provoking. Thank you.

    ps: like bree without the b.

  11. Bowden P. (Trey) , says:

    Thank you all!

Leave a Reply