Charles Stross

By Steve Nagy
Always to be italicized
Photo by Sandy MacKenzie
Who is Charles Stross?
One answer is this brief description, which illuminates at the same time it informs.

GTW/CS/L/MD d– s:+ a? C++++$ UL++++$ UC++$ US+++$ P++++$ L+++$ E— W+++$ N+++ o+ K+++ !w— O- M+ V- PS+++ PE Y++ PGP+ !t 5? X– !R(+++) tv– b+++ DI++++/++ !D G+ e+++ h++/-/— r++ z?

For those who don’t know what this text string represents, it’s Stross’s self-description using the Geek Code, as developed by Robert A. Hayden. It denotes appearance, computers, politics, entertainment, and lifestyle. I won’t go into a detailed explanation of the code or what Stross says — if you’re enough of a geek, you’ll check out the code yourself, and if you’re not, note that his story “Lobsters,” published in Asimov’s in June 2001, made the final ballot for the Hugo and Nebula awards last year and this year. “the Nebulas will be awarded later this month.) “Lobsters” kicked off a series about the Manfred Macx family, detailing life during and after a Vingean Singularity. However, Stross writes more than just cutting-edge short fiction. He has five novels slated for publication in the next few years. Read on for the lengthier explanation of who Stross is and what he’s doing.

MD: How would you describe yourself without using the Geek Code? Or would you prefer that description?

CS: Both 😉

Okay. First let me shatter some illusions: I was born in late 1964 in Leeds, England, so I’m not a young upstart. I sold my first SF to Interzone back in the mid-eighties, and sort of fizzled along for a bit, so I’m not a new author, either. My sudden appearance on the radar in the USA rather took me by surprise — although it might have something to do with me having made a conscious decision to re-start my writing career in the late nineties, back when I realised one year that I’d sold a single story in the preceding 12 months, and it was a reprint.

When I was young and foolish I listened to the usual advice from older (and equally foolish) heads. I’d figured out that my life’s goal was to be a science fiction writer before I turned 12 — don’t ask me why, I’m not sure — but made the mistake of listening when people told me “you can’t make a living that way: why don’t you find a career that you can earn money at while you pursue your hobby?” So it wasn’t until mid-2000 that I bit the bullet and went full-time as a writer.

Along the way, I’ve done several things that I wouldn’t recommend in order to keep body and soul together. Becoming a pharmacist was a bad move, but I didn’t really figure out just how bad it was until the second time my shop was staked out by the police (who were expecting an armed robbery). In order to get the hell out of being a Pharmacist I sold my house and my car and went back to university to study computer science, but I really wouldn’t recommend that kind of career restart to anyone who has dependents or needs to sleep at night; I wouldn’t recommend applying for a job as first programmer in the door at a new dot-com, either.

But the key thing I’ve always seen myself as is a writer.

MD: I’ve been rereading the Manfred Macx stories and I can’t help but come away from them feeling overwhelmed. They appear so dense, so ripe with ideas and analogies packed into such a tiny space. How hard was it establishing that type of tone or that type of character?

CS: Very.

First, a disclaimer: the Macx stories are an experiment. They are not typical of my usual writing style, and you shouldn’t expect the novels to resemble these stories. (On the other hand, they seem to be a successful experiment, insofar as most people seem to like them.)

Back in the 1980’s, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, the early cyberpunk writers were a huge influence on me. As time went on, the original influence waned: with experience it became

possible to focus on why cyberpunk interested me, rather than the surface glitz and style.

A large part of it is that any work of fiction is a cultural artifact rooted in the times and experiences of the author. The cyberpunks were writing futures by extrapolating from the present that I grew up in, rather than, say, the 1950’s or 1960’s (which coloured the outlook of the older generations of writers).

Earlier, I mentioned doing a degree in CS and working as a technical author and programmer in the software industry. I was bitten late by the computer bug; my school didn’t actually offer any classes in computing until the year I left, after I’d made my university choice, and I didn’t get my first computer (a Sinclair ZX81) until I was 18. (It took me until age 25 to figure out that what I had started out doing was a mistake and I needed to hit the restart button and go back, learn about a new field, and do something more interesting.) Now, one side effect of this is that by the time I was studying CS, the university I was at — Bradford — had an Internet connection; I’ve been on the net continuously since 1989 (apart from an 8-month outage immediately after I finished the degree).

And the Internet became something of an obsession for me. So it’s probably not surprising in retrospect that I joined a web startup in early 1995, and a dot-com in early 1998, sticking my head into what was for a while the fastest moving, hottest, developing new industry on the planet.

“Lobsters” comes straight out of the profound sense of dislocation and acceleration that I got from the experience. When you’re working for a company whose customer base and turnover is increasing at a 30% compound rate per month the universe looks very weird. It’s also stressful: increases in cash flow follow growth in customers by a couple of months, so there’s never enough money to hire and train the warm bodies you need to keep the system going. For a period of about a year I was basically focusing on crisis management, holding together a bunch of servers I’d written — which at one point were handling about 20% of the e-commerce credit card transactions in the UK.

Some people crack up under stress. I tend to work it out by writing dense prose. At the same time, I was immersed in an exponential growth scenario and working for a company in a field that literally hadn’t existed two years ago. Add the facts that I’d been tracking the Extropians mailing list since roughly 1992 — where a lot of ideas in current currency focus on the Singularity, mind uploading, alternative economic and legal systems, and so on — and spending long weekends in Amsterdam to de-stress from the job, and you’ve got the origins of “Lobsters.”

After “Lobsters,” I realised there had to be another story to provide closure on the whole Manfred/Pamela thing. And it was about a thousand words into the story that I realised I really wanted to do a series of nine — three stories for each of three successive generations of the same moderately dysfunctional family, following them right through a Vingean singularity (narrated by the family’s robot cat). And that’s where things are going. I’m most of the way through writing story #8 right now. But they’re difficult to construct — I’m held hostage to the density I established at the beginning and trying to imagine a post-singularity solar system from the viewpoint of some of the remaining augmented humans is hard. In fact, I’d say each story has about half as many original ideas as an entire normal novel. Maybe when I finish story #9 I’ll go to work on turning the sequence into a fix-up, tentatively titled Accelerando — adding the bridging material and polish they’d need — but right now I’m barely convinced I’ll get there. (Don’t expect a similar novel any time soon; it’ll have taken four or five years to write this one, and I need time to recharge afterward!)

MD: Manfred seems so connected with the world and yet so distant from what people might consider the mainstream. The stories seem a comment on mediocrity, politics, sociology, and consumerism all at the same time. I got the same general feel after reading the posted preview chapters for FESTIVAL OF FOOLS. (Editor’s Note: FESTIVAL OF FOOLS was the title of the UK trade paperback version of SINGULARITY SKY. Originally slated for publication by Big Engine this spring, the publisher shut down. Stross reports the rights have reverted and his agent is investigating resale of the book in the UK under the SINGULARITY SKY title.) Do you have any opinions on that? Right, wrong? I guess this is more a question about how much you want to be or see yourself as an agent of change or education.

CS: Hmm. Politics 🙂

I have been described as a New Scottish Socialist SF Writer. One out of three ain’t bad; I’m not Scottish (although I live there), I’m not new (I sold my first story to Interzone more than fifteen years ago), and I’m not socialist — at least, not in the way Ken MacLeod or Iain Banks are.

Politically I’m probably best described as aggressively liberal — with a fairly specific meaning in UK political discourse: I’m in favour of civil liberties, a mixed economy with a strong public sector to provide social services for the poor, the elderly, and the sick, and take the general view that the state exists to serve the interests of the people by providing those services that private enterprise is bad at. I don’t believe the free market is infallible; experience shows us that it’s prone to bubbles and local failures, lack of regulation can lead to monopolies, cartels, and other forms of abuse, and some industries (insurance is the classic example) can’t ever deliver what they promise — as witness the rise in health insurance exclusions in the US, for example.

Having said that, I’m also a pragmatist. Go with whatever works, in other words. If an ideology can’t deliver positive results, ditch it. The most obscene sight in politics is somebody who puts a point of principle ahead of human lives. Compromise is good, fanaticism is bad.

Liberal principles make for a polychromatic world-view. But fiction is often about the exploration of extremes; witness the popularity of the good guy/bad guy confrontation, for example. Totally black-or-white. So to the extent that I let my politics sneak into my fiction, it’s mostly manifest by pointing out that there are more shades of gray in the picture than a naive reading of the situation would illustrate.

MD: Speaking of SINGULARITY SKY, what can you tell us about it and about your other novels?

CS: (That book) started out back in 1996 and took about three years to nail down. It’s space opera — in a universe where there’s faster than light travel, and slower than light travel, and causality violation isn’t just an abstraction for theoretical physicists to worry about. It looks into issues of social conservativism and ideas of progress and really leaves me scratching my head when asked to sum it up: I guess the best elevator pitch is “the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Space meets the Edinburgh Festival with Nanotechnology.”

After languishing on desks for a few years, FoF got a toe in the door with a small British publisher, Big Engine, who brought out a trade paperback edition this February. Then I hooked up with an agent who said, “We can do better than that,” and promptly landed a two-book deal with Ace. Ace will be publishing a slightly longer, differently edited version in hardcover this August, going paperback in 2004, with a sequel in hardcover at the same time. For reasons that make sense to marketing folks, Ace re-titled FESTIVAL OF FOOLS as SINGULARITY SKY. The sequel, THE IRON SUNRISE is mostly written and should be on my editor’s desk within the next month or so.

SINGULARITY SKY and THE IRON SUNRISE are both space operas set in a bizarrely anthropic universe where the stability of time itself is rendered somewhat fragile by all the zipping around in starships. There may be other books in that universe some time later. But in the meantime, after writing FESTIVAL OF FOOLS (and while waiting for it to sell) I decided to do several completely different things.

The proximate result is another novel, THE ATROCITY ARCHIVE. It sits in the same uneasy cross-genre position as Tim Powers’ DECLARE (which I hadn’t read when I wrote it) — it’s a tour of the British secret service for protecting the nation from occult threats, a sort of seedy Len Deighton secret service into which a Neal Stephenson hacker-geek hero has accidentally fallen and is forced to confront various techno-Lovecraftian horrors. Lovecraft is mostly remembered for his mad gods and strangely inbred New England villages, but there’s a lot more to him than that; in particular, “At The Mountains of Madness” hints at a cosmology in which worlds linked by gateways have had a long history of colonisation by varied alien species, most of them about as sympathetically human as a six-metre-long carnivorous bat-winged sea cucumber. I don’t provide any flying sea cucumbers, but I do like the way one type of occult knowledge (think: Stephenson’s Necronomicon) meshes with another type of occult knowledge (think: security clearances) and I really, really want to write the other two books in the trilogy (if someone will buy them).

The Atrocity Archive was serialised in the Scottish magazine Spectrum SF during 2001. A hardback edition, featuring an extra novella and an intro by Ken MacLeod, is due out from Golden Gryphon in 2004, and there’s a French translation in progress.

The big new thing I’m working on is actually my debut in the fantasy field. After my agent sold Singularity Sky to Ace she said, “You realize they won’t want a sequel writing for a couple of years?” (As it happens, she was wrong — but going by the usual publishing lead-time, she was on target.) “So why don’t you sit down and write me a big fat fantasy or alternate history novel and a series pitch that I can sell to make us both rich?”

(I love having a cynical agent; she keeps forcing me to focus on the most important question, which is “what do I want to write that people will also want to read?”)

Anyway, I bounced some ideas back and forth with her and worked out that actually I have as much desire to write heroic fantasy sagas as I have to stuff baby blue ringed octopi up my butt. Alternate history was, however, another thing. I’ve had a yen for a long time to take the basic premise of H. Beam Piper’s Paratime stories — trade between parallel time lines — and of Zelazny’s Amber series — back-stabbing crosstime travelling aristocrats — and do a remix for the post dotcom generation.

The result is the “Merchant Princes” series, which Tor will be publishing, starting in late 2004 with A Family Trade and continuing in 2005 with The Clan Corporate. It’s got feuding quasi-mediaeval aristocrats, steam-powered zeppelins, drug smuggling, and an investigative journalist heroine who gets more than she bargained for when she goes in search of her original family. It’s also got revolutions caused by the economics of inter-universal technology transfer, a much scarier alternative to the war on terrorism, and (in the second book) a CIA black operations unicorn.

(I’m not sure just why Tor wants to publish this as fantasy, but hey — they’re the publishers, right?)

Beyond these novels, which are already sliding into print … there’s the two others linked to The Atrocity Archive. As I can’t write more than two novels a year, even full-time, that takes me up to about 2006, by which time I’m sure I’ll be writing something that isn’t even on the radar right now.

MD: Since you compare THE ATROCITY ARCHIVE to Tim Powers’ DECLARE, is it safe to assume you’re a fan? It’s interesting that really good fiction (IMHO) brings together ideas that a reader wouldn’t normally connect — such as Noah’s Ark and British spies or cryptography and Cthulhu. Is this the most unusual connection you’ve made in your writing? Was it hard?

CS: Am I a fan? As in, an SF fan? Of course. Do I let it run my entire life? Well, no. (Like many writers, I have obsessive tendencies — you have to, to work on a novel for years on end — but I try to keep a lid on them.) What I can confess to as a focus for my ideas is an interest in several overlapping fields.

Between about 1976, when I first saw a computer, and 1999, when I’d spent too damn long working with them for a living, I had a bad case of computeritis. This shouldn’t come as any surprise; a lot of people caught the bug. In particular, it was a field where things were moving fast. There aren’t too many of them, and if by temperament you’re born a neophiliac, you tend to gravitate towards them. Maybe I’m slightly anomalous in that my interest went beyond dinking with a home PC and included doing a degree in computer science, which exposed me to a lot of the theoretical underpinnings behind them — but I’m not that unusual.
I also picked up the Internet bug relatively early, in 1989. Mashing that together with using and working on UNIX systems gave me an exposure to cryptography and networking and security concepts that hybridised with my previous interest in secret histories and spies. Again: I don’t think I’m particularly unusual in being interested in spy fiction and espionage — in many respects the spy is a modern archetype, with privileged access to information (“Information is power”!). But putting it together with the computers/networking side got me interested in some of the more obscure corners of information gathering — not the James Bond, cloak and dagger stuff, but the big omnivorous data monitoring organizations like NSA and GCHQ. As for James Bond, I read all the books in my early teens — but don’t much like the schlock movies; they bear about the same relationship to the real thing that “Deep Space Nine” bears to NASA.

You’d think conspiracy theories would be a good fit for these interests, and you’d be right. Conspiracy theories give aid and comfort when the world is a bewildering place and things are happening outside your control — as seemed to be the case for a lot of people growing up in the UK in the 1980’s and 1990’s. (But I’ve always been a little bit skeptical about them, for that very reason: precisely because such theories are so seductive, can you trust your own belief in them?)

As for religion … no thanks. I grew up in a reform Jewish household but figured out I was an atheist by the age of ten. Faith without falsifiability is just self-delusion, as far as I’m concerned; while I can see some utility to religious belief in the context of early societies, what Richard Dawkins says about religion basically goes for me, too. Nor am I a dualist; I don’t see any valid evidence to support the existence of a separate “soul,” or of its survival after death.

But this in turn means that some ideas that might seem axiomatic to people with a religious framework are now up for grabs, and can be examined in fiction. After all, if your mind is just a subjective illusion generated by a hundred billion interconnected neurons, then is it plausible to imagine mapping those connections and running your mind as a software process? What kind of environment would be necessary in order to keep you sane as an upload? What happens if we play around with your real time clock speed? Or begin adding neurons around an existing brain — either by plugging into a real lump of wetware via existing channels such as the eyes, or by extending a simulated brain?

It’s all good fun….

As to the Tim Powers connection, there’s less there than meets the eye. As far as I can tell, in DECLARE he wrote a John LeCarre novel of sorts, mixing the central characters’ personal crisis of religious faith with a back-story of djinni, and the puzzle of Kim Philby’s past (which is actually straight out of the history books and makes a lot more sense in Powers’ novel than in reality, as far as we know!) In THE ATROCITY ARCHIVE I was writing a fundamentally different type of novel about a fundamentally different character — but because we were both using secret agencies and secret histories based in the UK, we’d mined the same veins for ideas. (Both books, for example, feature a special project established by SOE during World War Two that has survived that agency’s demise at the end of the war. In both cases, the protagonist is involved in a raid by a special unit of the SAS into territory occupied by an occult enemy, which goes badly wrong. But I suspect if you read the books back to back, you’ll get severe cognitive whiplash.)

MD: Following along with that, what other authors do you enjoy reading? For pleasure, for pain? Who gets your adrenaline running nowadays?

CS: It varies. I read a lot, although less than I’d like to — currently I don’t have a to-read shelf, I’ve got a to-read bookcase, and I’m only emptying it at about 100 books per year.

There are a few names I ought to mention, though, because they may be new to your readers. Ken MacLeod probably needs no introduction; but what about John Meaney? John Meaney is one of the three best things to have happened to British SF in the past decade (the others being Ken MacLeod and John Courtney Grimwood, who I’ll get onto in a minute). Meaney’s published three hard SF novels that actually manage to do far future interplanetary societies in a way that might not make Greg Egan grind his teeth down to stumps. He’s into quantum entanglement and parallel hyperthreading and game theory and loads of groovy cutting edge stuff, and he doesn’t use them as buzzwords.

John Courtney Grimwood stared out doing ho-hum cyberpunkish novels set in an alternate time-line where the French Emperor Napoleon III won the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. But his latest project is a tour de force, showing a much greater degree of control and maturity, and the kind of political awareness that Ken MacLeod is famous for — with a razor sharp edge. The “Arabesk” trilogy (Pashazade, Effendi, and the forthcoming final volume) takes as its jumping off point a world in which the first world war fizzled out in 1915, and the Ottoman empire has lasted — in rump form — into the 21st century; it follows the arrival of a prodigal son returning from his education in the west to the city of Iskandria (Alexandria), and a whole lot more. It reads as if Neal Stephenson had gone to live in Egypt for a couple of years then re-wrote “When Gravity Fails,” except that doesn’t begin to do it justice.

Unfortunately, as I understand it, Grimwood has had difficulty finding a US publisher for this trilogy (the first volume of which was runner-up for the 2001 Clarke award); the Middle Eastern setting seems to have been a marketing turn-off.

At this point, I probably ought to put a word in for Cory Doctorow, except he’s quite capable of speaking up for himself. Let’s just say I’ve read the manuscript of his next novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, and I think it’s at least as good as Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom — very different background and near-future setting, weird social happy mutants, similar preoccupations, and a treat in store for anyone who compulsively checks Slashdot as soon as they sit down in front of a computer in the morning.

The Charles Stross website is at http://www.antipope.org/charlie/

Please follow and like us: