Asimov's chat with Charles Stross
Moderator: Hi everyone, thanks for joining us tonight.
I'm Patrizia DiLucchio for SCIFI.COM, and tonight we're pleased to be hosting the latest in our regular biweekly series of chats, co-sponsored by Analog: Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov's Science Fiction magazines, and hosted by the charming and talented Gardner Dozois. Asimov's has a web site which you should all rush out and log on to immediately after this chat. That URL is:

Gardner: Fabulous Blather sounds like an ale or larger they might have on tap in a pub near Charlie...

Moderator: Charlie, you should be able to type now too! Faster than ever.

Moderator: Try.

cstross: Okay, let's see if I can type ...

Moderator: Brief word about the drill. As always, this is a moderated chat -- please send your questions for our guests to Moderator, as private messages. (To send a private message, either double-click on Moderator or type "/msg Moderator" on the command line - only without the quotes.)

Gardner: Why, all at once he can type without even touching the keys!

Moderator: 240 wpm.

Moderator: What price Diet Coke drinking chimps NOW?

Gardner: Depends if you're selling them on Ebay or not.

cstross: Signal all monkeys to flank speed ...

LouAntonelli: Uhh, the floor isn't closed, guys.

Moderator: No?

Moderator: Lemme try that again.

LouAntonelli: I'm here, aint' I

Gardner: Awk! There's someone from the floor in here! Eeek! eeek!

Moderator: How about now?

Gardner: Maybe Lou is just a super hacker...

Moderator: Or he has a Captain Jack O'Neill voodoo doll...

Gardner: So, Charlie, do you ever feel ironic about suddenly being a "hot new writer?" <g>

cstross: As Michael Swanwick said in a recent interview, "every overnight success takes at least ten years". I made my first pro sale back in 1986 to Interzone ...

cstross: ... so yes, I do feel it's somehow ironic. (Let me get my thoughts in order.)

Gardner: I remember somebody saying you were a new writer in front of Paul McAuley, and him commenting that you and he had sold your first story in the same year.

cstross: Thing is, while I don't feel it's undeserved (would you?), I can't help thinking that there must be other writers out there, who've been busy in solitude for a decade and who then just jacked it in, months before they *might* have made that breakthrough. Yes, I sold around the same time as Paul. But Paul's the one who went on to sell a novel fairly rapidly, and make a visible career.

cstross: To some extent I think maybe I began selling stories too early -- I was 21 with that first sale -- and just wasn't ready to attack the major work of writing novels.

cstross: And to be honest, novels are what make or break a writer's reputation.

Gardner: Not always. Or not always entirely. I think the kind of buzz you've been generating in the magazines the last couple of years is an example.

cstross: It's possible to get noticed by writing short fiction, and even to develop a hell of a critical reputation -- look at Ted Chiang -- but if you don't publish books, you don't get noticed outside of the small, relatively specialised audience who read magazines and anthologies.

Gardner: You might have published several novels in the same time frame and not gotten noticed at all.

Gardner: It happens.

cstross: So I stayed obscure by (a) selling short stories in obscure British magazines, and (b) not quite figuring out how to write a novel that wasn't a broken-backed pantomime horse for some years ...

cstross: Gardner: yes, that's true.

cstross: But it depends on the quality of the novels, to some extent.

Gardner: And I think you're right about all the writers who give up just a bit too early. But we'll never know, will we?

cstross: I think the pressure to publish novels early and to keep churning them out also damages some writers. In some respects I've been very lucky to have languished in relative obscurity for this long -- it wasn't until last year that I got to experience at first hand the fun and stress of being expected to cough up a novel to a deadline!

Gardner: Working as a columnist must have given you some experience with that, though.

cstross: Magazine columns -- and technical writing, which I also did -- are not quite the same. You've got deadlines but you don't have the complete creative control that comes with fiction. There tends to be some constraint on the field you have to pitch your tent in.

cstross: But yes, writing magazine features month after month gave me a keen appreciation for hitting deadlines ...

cstross: which is to say, if you think you're going to blow past one, *TELL YOUR EDITOR*! And tell them as far in advance as possible, so they can make alternative arrangements.

cstross: (It's surprising how many otherwise professional writers don't seem to get that one.)

Gardner: I think generating a critical buzz in magazines and anthologies may help with a novel career. Many new writers publish a couple of novels that don't sell well, perhaps because they're not on top of their game yet, perhaps because of name-recognition, and stall their whole career.

cstross: I'd say, though, that the pressure to get a 140,000 word novel nailed down to a deadline is way harder than getting a 3000 word feature in on time.

Gardner: For those who don't know, Charlie, why don't you tell us a bit about your other career in the computer world?

cstross: Critical buzz -- yes. In fact, it's the traditional route to success, isn't it? The dream ticket: "sell some stories to Amazing or Analog or whoever, then sell a novel".

cstross: Yeah. The computer career sprang out of writing ...

cstross: Like many people who want to write, people told me, "you can't make a living at it, get a real career and write in your spare time". So I did, and I was miserable as a pharmacist, especially after the second time the cops staked my shop out for an armed robbery.

cstross: However, this being the mid-eighties, word processors were just becoming available at reasonable prices.

Gardner: The FIRST time should have been a tip-off for you to stop knocking the place over, Charlie. <g>

Moderator: Station identification: We're talking to writer CHARLIE STROSS, whose first novel SINGULARITY SKY will be published in the U.S. this August. This is a moderated chat -- please send your questions for our guests to Moderator, as private messages. (To send a private message, either double-click on Moderator or type "/msg Moderator" on the command line - only without the quotes.)

cstross: So I bought myself an Amstrad word processor and was somewhat perturbed to find that there was no word count feature in it. But there *was* a BASIC interpreter. So I sat down to try and write a word counter, and accidentally ended up on a night class in computer science, and it was slippery slope that led to me jacking in the job, selling my car and my apartment, going back to university, and doing a conversion degree in computer science.

Gardner: Good timing.

cstross: One of the things a starving student on a postgrad CS course can do to eke out their living is to write for magazines. So I pitched, and I hit, and I ended up writing for a British mag called Computer Shopper which was staffed by eccentric old-school computer journalists of the kind who made BYTE work.

cstross: And during the 90's I drifted via the UNIX world into Linux and web development, and then into being programmer #1 at a small UK-based dot com.

cstross: Finally I gave up the day job -- actually, I resigned from the dot com to join another as head of software development, just in time for the bottom to fall out of the market and my new company to be subject to a hostile takeover -- and switched to writing and journalism full-time. That was early 2000.

cstross: (Nothing concentrates the mind on writing magazine articles and selling them quite as much in my experience as being halfway through a three month notice period when your job offer evaporates under you and you've already burned your bridges :) )

cstross: Anyway, there you have it. Drug dealer turned hacker, the ideal post-cyberpunk career track.

Moderator: Various people are pinging me to find out about yr programmer salary, Charlie...

Moderator: I think they're all having mid-life career crises.

cstross: (It really sucks to wake up one morning in the middle of a William Gibson novel and find that you want out bad!)

cstross: Trust me, I could have tripled my salary *easily* if I'd emigrated to Silly Valley. Or doubled it if I'd moved to London. I'm a Perl mangler (albeit going slowly rusty these days).

Gardner: So why fiction? You can probably make a lot more with computer journalism. So does fiction satisfy some need you can't reach to scratch with journalism?

cstross: Oh, and as for my stock options, the guy above me in the company scored upwards of a million pounds. Me, I got less than half the cost of a new car ... and the shares are in the tank right now. I didn't sell.

cstross: Now, fiction or journalism?

cstross: It's quite simple: the journalism scratches the need to MAKE MONEY FA$T, while the fiction is what I live for.

cstross: You cannot make money writing short fiction. Period. At least, not enough to live off, unless you're Robert Silverburg. (Right?)

Gardner: I don't think Silverberg can do it either these days.

cstross: In contrast, magazines -- and there are lots of 'em out there -- will happily pay GBP 125-350 per thousand words for vaguely grammatical prose that vaguely says something about whatever the magazine is preoccupied with. Newsstand magazine publishing is a sucking black hole for copy.

cstross: Although all the print media are hurting these days, due to the migration of advertising onto the web.

Gardner: There never really was a time when you could, which is why SF writers, like you, always tended to have day jobs to support their dreaming.

Gardner: Here's a tricky question, one you might not even be able to answer:

cstross: Book publishing, and fiction in particular, is ironically the least badly hit part of the business because professionally edited imprints like Ace or Tor or DAW maintain quality.

cstross: I'm all ears ...

Gardner: For years, you labored along in relative obscurity selling a few stories here and there; now, suddenly, you're a "hot new writer" that everybody's talking about. What happened? What's different between then and now?

cstross: Ah, I think I *can* answer that. Give me a minute or so ...

cstross: Okay. I began writing when I was 12 or so. Lots of crap. Began selling at 21. Less crap, but still a bit juvenile. Not well thought-out. I peaked around 23-25, nearly sold a novel in 1993 (it's still sitting on my website under lock and key), but wasn't really mature enough to tackle complex themes effectively and to structure a long work properly.

cstross: Short stuff, remember, is structurally easier than long stuff.

cstross: Then ... well, I was working as a tech author, which tends to be ennervating if you want to write fiction. You get home in the evening and think, "MORE writing?" And I landed a non-fiction book contract with Addison-Wesley, and moved north and joined a web start-up and worked insane hours. And one day in 1997 or 1998 I woke up and realised I'd sold one story in the preceeding year -- and it was a reprint.

cstross: At that point, it was clear to me that I had to shit or get off the pot.

cstross: I'd written a couple of novels. They took me 18 months each. The earlier one was structurally questionable. The second one was painfully difficult -- I cut maybe 120,000 words out of it and ended up with a workable 118,000 word draft. And maybe it would sell (and maybe not). But I wasn't *visibly* getting anywhere.

cstross: If you write without reward, eventually you maybe stop writing. So I decided to go for that reward button, by cold-bloodedly setting out to write six short stories a year, and sell them, and to break into the big famous American magazines and anthologies that had eluded me.

cstross: I started by dusting off the contents of my unfinished ideas folder. "Antibodies" and "Bear Trap" were both completed in 1998, and I began them in 1991-92.

cstross: Then I attacked some newer stuff. I think "A Colder War" was the first wholly new story I wrote in that bunch. ("At the Mountains of Madness" meets alternate history and Oliver North.)

Moderator: Station identification: We're talking to writer CHARLIE STROSS, whose first novel SINGULARITY SKY will be published in the U.S. this August. This is a moderated chat -- please send your questions for our guests to Moderator, as private messages. (To send a private message, either double-click on Moderator or type "/msg Moderator" on the command line - only without the quotes.)

cstross: Incidentally, my other first novel, "The Atrocity Archive" -- big plug, it's due out in hardcover from Golden Gryphon next spring -- is sort of based on (but different from) "A Colder War". It's probably best described as an occult thriller, and it was the next novel I wrote after that difficult 118,000 word one that is surfacing next month as the space opera "Singularity Sky". But I digress ...

cstross: In 1997, the web startup I worked for went bust. I did contract work for a year or so, then was headhunted as programmer #1 at a company that didn't exist until two weeks after they began paying me -- Datacash, a UK-based online payment service provider.

cstross: My job was to hook web servers up to the British banking system. And if you know anything about banking IT systems, much less hidebound British banking IT systems, this will have you screaming for mercy and running for cover.

cstross: Datacash grew exponentially -- at one point in 1999 we hit 30% compound growth per month. And my stress grew exponentially because the ropy demo I'd thrown together was processing serious amounts of *real money* and being extended in insane and baroque ways ("make it talk to a French bank! Can it handle Dollar/Euro transactions?").

cstross: "Lobsters" was what I did instead of having a nervous breakdown.

Gardner: Fascinating to think that there's some alternate probablity world where you got off the pot, and none of us have ever heard of you.

cstross: Yeah. I think I prefer this reality, though. Don't you? :)

Gardner: Let's take some audience questions, then I'll get back to putting you on the spot.

Gardner: I definately do, by the way! <g>

cstross: Okay ... (taking a 30-second break)

Moderator: <AndrewN>: What was it like to write a novel in 21 days? (Glasshouse, I believe it was) What is that novel about?

Gardner: Definately shitting rather than getting of the pot, there! <g>

cstross: Okay, "Glasshouse". Warning: not yet sold! Second draft not polished off yet.

cstross: What happened was: at precisely 2:30pm on March 20th, I was sitting in the pub with a friend when a rogue idea installed itself on /dev/brain, soaked up all available cpu cycles, and threatening to bring the system down if I didn't purge it to backup media (i.e. this laptop).

cstross: The idea?

cstross: Firstly, I'd just read "Red Thunder" by John Varley, and while it's okay, it wasn't the Varley novel I'd wanted (the third in the thematic trilogy beginning with "Steel Beach" and "The Golden Globe"). I was, bluntly, suffering Varley withdrawl symptoms.

Gardner: Recognized as a medical syndrome by the Red Cross...

Moderator: (Which is a good time for me to mention that John Varley willl be our chat guest this Thursday...)

cstross: Secondly, I'd been reading up on the Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram's studies on how to make ordinary folks commit atrocities. And I got this crazy idea: what if you ran the Zimbardo prison study protocol in something not unlike Varley's Eight World's universe, with gender roles instead of prisoner/guard roles?

cstross: Getting it out of my system took 21 consecutive 12-hour days, and caused my partner to nearly strangle me several times. Only time will tell if it was worth it.

cstross: Phew. Next question?

Gardner: More audience questions?

Moderator: <LouAntonelli> : Who are YOUR favorite authors to read? Who are the authors you most admire professionally? Who of the classic authors do you most admire? (Classic meaning dead... )

cstross: Classic? Ew, ick.

Moderator: (I thought the way to get oridinary people to commit atrocities was to make them try out for American Idol...)

Gardner: Let me rephrase that, since I wanted to ask it anyway. What writers influenced and inspired YOU, Charlie?

Gardner: And which of your peers do you admire?

Moderator: Station identification: We're talking to writer CHARLIE STROSS, whose first novel SINGULARITY SKY will be published in the U.S. this August. This is a moderated chat -- please send your questions for our guests to Moderator, as private messages. (To send a private message, either double-click on Moderator or type "/msg Moderator" on the command line - only without the quotes.)

cstross: I could list authors I like to read for a very long time. So I won't. But ... oh, influences!

cstross: Rumours that Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks and I are some sort of Movement are just that -- rumours. But I like their work a lot, and Ken and I get together for a drink fairly regularly.

cstross: Still, it's weird. I'm 400 miles from London, which is where a lot of the British SF literary activity is centred. It's almost like being in another country.

Gardner: Not too much of a brilliant critical insight for me to suspect that you're another one, like me, who admires Len Deighton (particularly his early novels)...

cstross: (I'm not answering this question very well, am I? Strong hint for everyone: go over to, look for the M. John Harrison discussion forum, and read the threads titled "The New Weird". *There* is your new literary movement in a nutshell.)

Moderator: Another audience question:

Moderator: <Glenoftexas>: so you write for love of the craft or sheer cussedness?

cstross: Gardner: yeah, I like Len Deighton. I think he's vastly underrated as one of the greatest spy novelists of the last century.

Gardner: I agree.

cstross: I'm not sure I understand what "sheer cussedness" is.

cstross: Or love of the craft.

cstross: I write because ... well, I'll stop when I'm dead. Until then, not writing is a bit like not breathing.

Moderator: The same answer Moira Shearer gave in The Red Shoes about dancing...

Moderator: so the right answer.

Gardner: "Sheer cussedness" is when you abandon a dog to die in the desert and instead it drags itself bleeding and panting for a thousand miles to show up at your wedding day instead. <g>

Moderator: If I may ask a question, I would like to know something about Singularity Sky --

cstross: Aha. It's an obsessive-compulsive thing. I *do* obsess about writing. In fact, I can be a real bore. It's what happens when your hobby takes over your life. At least it's not something like bus-spotting :)

cstross: Singularity Sky:

Moderator: After yr long novel-writing apprenticeship, how did you KNOW that this one was the real thing?

cstross: It's a space opera. I began it after reading "A fire upon the deep", and I decided I wanted to do one that took Vinge's idea of the singularity seriously. Then I got distracted by reading about the voyage of the Russian Baltic fleet to Tsushima in 1905 -- the greatest naval disaster of the 20th century. And ...

cstross: Well, I didn't *know* it was the real thing until I'd written it. Which actually took two or three attempts because there was something broken-backed about the first two. But once I figured out I was missing some ingredients and went back to put them in, I realised I had a novel that had some characters and a plot and some ideas and actually hung together, unlike most of my previous attempts. So I sent it forth into the world. And no, it didn't sell immediately.

Gardner: MacLeod and Banks are your peers, though, to some extent. Not going to admit to any influences among the old boys?

cstross: But I think stylistically I'm nothing like Ken or Iain.

cstross: One point I will note -- the political axis in the UK is very different from the US.

cstross: And it's not simply that the UK is more "left wing", whatever than means. It's that the whole political graph points in a different direction.

cstross: Ken is a self-consciously socialist SF writer, with anarchist sympathies. That's a political position that maps very uneasily onto American political sensibilities.

cstross: Iain is less overtly political but has a ferocious gut-level egalitarian small-S socialism that is part of the zeitgeist in Scotland (and has been for decades), but again is a weird fit for US politics.

cstross: And me, I'm a liberal. But not an American-type liberal.

Gardner: Where do you see your future career as a writer going? Do you think you are, or are going to be, the Kumquat Hagen-Daz? <g>

cstross: I see my future career going off in all sorts of directions, mostly at random. I hope I don't end up as ice cream -- ice cream tends to melt as soon as it comes under the hot scrutiny of the public :)

cstross: I've got a bewildering number of books coming out in the next two years. "Singularity Sky" from Ace will be followed in July 2004 by "The Iron Sunrise", which is a sequel of sorts (and a very different type of space opera -- much more Banksian).

cstross: "The Atrocity Archive" is coming out early next year from Golden Gryphon, and some time or other I might even write the sequel that's been queued up for a couple of years.

cstross: I am currently working on a two book contract for Tor -- marketed as fantasy, although conceived of as paratime-travelling alternate histories after the model of Zelazny or H. Beam Piper -- but I can't give you titles or publication dates at present because they're being revised.

cstross: And I'm still working on the "Accelerando" stories for Asimov's. (I'm probably not giving anything away if I say that "Glasshouse" is set in the very far future of that same universe.)

Gardner: I should probably explain the term, as it's a bit of an in-joke. We took it from a Frank Herbert term that none of us could remember or spell, something like the kwizatch kasserach, which he applied to Paul in DUNE. In other words, the Messiah.

cstross: Urk, no! I'm no messiah. I'm just a very naughty boy.

Gardner: I took to calling it the Kumquat Hagen-Daz. I got to be it for a year, many decades ago. Then they all forgot me. <g>

Moderator: Nobody could forget YOU, Gardner.

Moderator: This is the point in the evening when we go UNmoderated again -- and writers and their audience are free to chat a little more openly. (I worry about Charlie though since it's 3 AM where he is...)

cstross: I'm still vertical. Sort-of. (Aren't Aeron chairs wonderful?)

Moderator: Charlie, thanks so much for coming online with us tonight.

cstross: It's been a pleasure.

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