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Charles Stross' dense stories have made him a Singularity sensation

By Nick Gevers

I n the last few years, the British author Charles Stross has pushed his way energetically to the forefront of SF. He was initially known, from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, as a middle-ranking, competent, intellectually restless short-story writer, appearing mainly in U.K. publications such as Interzone, New Worlds and Odyssey, but in response to his recent flood of exhilaratingly inventive and anarchically humorous work, he has been hailed in many quarters as one of the brightest lights in the genre firmament.

His stories "Bear Trap," "Antibodies" and "A Colder War" (the last two reprinted in Gardner Dozois' Year's Best SF), appeared in 2000, the harbingers of huge success; the "Accelerando" novellas followed in Asimov's, confirming Stross' reputation as a supercharged version of Bruce Sterling, an ultimate cyberpunk; his collection Toast, published in 2002 by Cosmos Books, was a notable debut book, followed by the superb Lovecraftian thriller The Atrocity Archive (serialized in Spectrum SF 2001-2, with a hardcover edition due in 2004 from Golden Gryphon Press), the exciting and sardonic space opera Singularity Sky (Ace Books, 2003) and further novels scheduled for release in 2004 and later. Stross' fame will surely increase with each one.

I interviewed Charlie Stross by e-mail in September 2003.

As Gardner Dozois would say, you're one of the hottest new SF writers around. Yet you've actually been around a fair while—your first story appeared in 1986. What first got you interested in SF, and what do you see as the genre's function, its guiding purpose?

Stross: That's two distinct questions.

I can't really say what got me interested in SF because, like many SF fans, I've been reading it almost since before I could walk. Or maybe experiencing it: We are, after all, living in a future built on top of other people's dreams. Like Wernher von Braun's, for example. I remember being woken up at some appalling hour of the morning one day, and taken downstairs by my parents, who had the TV (a black and white one) turned on. There was a rather poor, grainy picture on the screen, of a ladder and an indistinct landscape. And then some guy in a big white suit climbed down the ladder and said something indistinct while I was yawning. It was Neil Armstrong on the steps of the Apollo 11 lunar module in 1969, I was five years old, and for about the next two or three years I was sure I was going to be an astronaut when I grew up. When you're convinced you're going to travel to other worlds, science fiction signifies something different to you than the Tales of the Brothers Grimm. And when you look back you realize that the world you live in is science fiction, as seen from the perspective of the past. (But then, the past is another country, isn't it?)

Asking me about the guiding purpose of science fiction is a bit like asking a fish about the guiding purpose of the sea. I'd have to say that first and foremost, SF is fiction. It's confabulation. It's the stories we tell each other for amusement and social bonding. I'm skeptical about assigning purpose to an artistic phenomenon, because it's something that, at bottom, we do for fun and communication. (When used for communication it may be used with serious intent, but that's far from being the main purpose of most SF.) Having said that, I do believe it's possible to insert interesting messages in fiction, and because fiction is viewed as a recreational activity this makes it possible to get them across to people who might not otherwise be receptive. It's called propaganda, and it can be used for political, social or religious purposes (for example, C.S. Lewis's Narnia books were explicitly conceived of as vehicles for Christian theology targeted at children of an impressionable age).

Your scientific background was initially in chemistry, but you switched over to computer science. Why the change? And how have these two disciplines shaped your fiction writing?

Stross: There's a slight misconception in that question: I initially qualified as a pharmacist, then did a conversion degree in computer science. Pharmacy is a profession that, in my opinion, requires the professional to either have no imagination whatsoever, or to be able to compartmentalize their life to an extent I find impossible. If you're 99.9 percent accurate in your work, you probably only kill 1 to 2 people a year and make another 10 to 20 very ill indeed. And you'll almost certainly never know who they were.

I was, bluntly, not well suited to being a pharmacist. I got into it because I listened to the career counselors who said, "You can't earn a living writing fiction. Why not get a real job and continue your hobby in the evenings?" However, I managed to stick out the academic side of qualifying without too much trouble, and took a couple of years of working as a pharmacist before I realized my unsuitability. A pharmacy degree includes a lot of biochemistry, physiology and pharmacology (not to mention botany, statistics and the fine art of making suppositories)—and when you get into the complexity of biological systems it gives you an appreciation of how badly most SF tackles alien biospheres.

The computing thing was almost an accident. I'm old enough that computers were only just showing up in school as I was leaving. The British educational system tends to force you to specialize at an early age, and I missed being able to do computer science at school by about two years. But this may have been an advantage in the long term. When I got my first word processor—in 1985—it was primitive enough that it didn't have a word counter. This bugged me, and bugged me so much that I started trying to write one. And I got annoyed at my own lack of understanding, so I signed up for a night-school course in computer science, and then when I was realizing that I needed a way out of being a pharmacist I discovered one of the local universities was running a master's conversion course in computer science. The conversion course was hairy. Basically, they let you in (only science graduates with a better-than-minimal degree need apply) and drop an entire taught computer-science degree on your head in 30 weeks. The failure rate was about 30 to 50 percent; you had to study every waking hour and go beyond the coursework—but at the end of it, if you stayed on your feet, you had a grounding in the basic concepts and enough in-depth specialization in some areas to be able to map out the extent of your own ignorance, and do something about it.

If you used the tools they gave you, after a year or two you'd be where any other CS graduate was. Switching career tracks probably put my writing back by half a decade, but enriched it in the long run. I began to notice that nobody, back in 1991, was basing SF on algorithmics, or complexity theory, or taking this stuff seriously. Greg Egan was only just beginning to publish (I think), and Vernor Vinge's Marooned in Realtime hadn't come out in the U.K. (the first novel to mention the word "singularity"). SF was the purportedly predictive genre that had completely missed the personal computer and the PDA (with the startling exception of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye), and William Gibson, despite purportedly writing about a networked future, was still clinging to geographical metaphors and getting things wrong. Cyberspace was showing up as a prop, like magic nanotechnology, and it was all wrong because I'd seen the Internet and, well, it was obvious that there was a ton of stuff out there to strip-mine that nobody was writing about.

Only then I went and got a job in the computer industry, and a magazine column about software and a book contract for a book about the World Wide Web for Addison-Wesley, and then a job in a Web startup company in 1995, and things sort of went on the back burner for a bit. So I missed the boat. (To put it in perspective, both "Antibodies" and "Bear Trap" were finished and sold in 1998, but I started writing both stories—and stalled on them—in 1992. Between those years I wrote very little fiction, except for one abortive near-future thriller and the novel that ultimately became Singularity Sky.)

Now we can start putting the toy-box together. Drugs (as pharmacological tools, not magic make-people-do-tricks toys), check. Computers (as machines with well-defined capabilities and limitations), check. Some appreciation of what really goes on in the artificial intelligence field, and of how little resemblance it bears to what the lay reader thinks is going on, check. Enough genetics and biochemistry to get annoyed by the gross oversimplifications that pass for public discourse in the field, check. So what's to do with the toolbox? Well, we can start by not making the same old mistakes, accepting the same stale plot tropes.

Have you noticed how many classic thriller/suspense plot structures rely on the hero or heroine not having a mobile phone? Now, it's worth asking: How many classic SF plot structures rely on the central character not having their entire sensory feed backed up on a bunch of server farms on the other side of the planet, or on the evil megacorporation's file servers with the secret plans for total world domination not being on a disconnected network? Bandwidth and connectivity have the same structural implications for much modern SF that travel time and isolation had for older fiction. And that's just one example of what you get when you start tooling up to write SF with a comp-sci background.

Like many of the newer British SF writers, you stand on the political left ...

Stross: I'm not sure whether to be amused or slightly aghast at the thought that I'm identified as being on the political left. I said earlier that we're living in some earlier SF writer's future: My fear is that since 9/11 we've been trapped in a novel Phil Dick wrote to an outline by George Orwell. I'm not a socialist or a communist. I am, however, not violently allergic to Marxist ideas in the way that many American SF writers seem to be. I'd characterize myself as a Liberal—one who believes in the core Enlightenment program, that human beings are born equal, are of equal merit in and of themselves, and deserve equal opportunities for self-realization—and a pragmatist, who believes that markets and private enterprise are powerful tools for wealth generation, but that markets tend to be unstable and require external regulation lest they go off the rails and damage the society that supports them. I also believe that regulatory authorities tend to be captured by their clients and need supervision. In other words, neither the private sector nor the government has a monopoly on virtue or vice. Libertarianism—hostility to anything but the most rudimentary government—comes up a lot in SF: It's a strident voice within the field. The kind of minimal night-watchman state many libertarians seem to want is actually a personal nightmare of mine. We had a night-watchman state in the U.K. from about 1830 through 1860, and there's a good reason we don't have one today: It didn't work.

Markets are great at matching producers of scarce commodities to consumers, but they're a lousy way of managing commons. Advanced economies need certain commons that are non-obvious—not just common land, but essential infrastructure without which the market-based economy can't run efficiently. We need healthcare, education, pensions, unemployment insurance, policing, fire departments, clean water, reliable power and communications, agencies to help the less competent members of society to use the facilities, and so on. If you try to run a complex society without these services you end up with people dying of starvation on the streets, as they did in Victorian London, or events like the Great Stench of 1856 (when a heat wave coincided with the level of raw sewage in the River Thames rising so high that Parliament had to be evacuated—that was when the then-monarchist government decided to build a sewer system!).

On the subject of politics in science fiction, you can do away with some of these commons if given sufficiently advanced technology. Pensions go out the window if we posit a cure for old age. Ninety percent of healthcare goes the same way, if we can beef up our immune systems as well as fixing the physiological effects of aging. But it's hard to see how we can do away with all of the functions of the state without putting something that is functionally equivalent in its place—or suffering unpleasant consequences. So, bluntly, I don't buy into the heroic libertarian fantasies that infuse much American SF.

My personal set of beliefs can probably be loosely summarized as "social democrat," and is compatible with the mainstream-left in Europe. (In elections here, I vote for the Liberal Democrats, one of the mainstream parties.) But this set of values is under attack by a strident group—the extreme right in the United States (who, with a near media monopoly, have a very large megaphone to shout through). I refuse to be labeled "left wing," because I'm not: I'm a centrist, and any attempt to label me as a left-wing radical is implicitly an attempt to shift the universe of political discourse to the right.

I used the term "extreme right" in that last paragraph, didn't I? I'd better define the term: Back in the 17th century we had a civil war in the U.K. That war was fought over a political question which has echoed through the centuries ever since, finding resonances in everything from the French and American revolutions to the U.S. Civil War, the second World War and the 2000 presidential elections in the USA. That political question is: Are human beings all fundamentally of equal merit, or are some humans more equal than others? Among the proponents of inequality we find Charles Stuart's unregenerate monarchists, the equally unfortunate Louis XVI of France, Southern slave owners, the Nazis and so on. The doctrine of human inequality also finds favor among some religious extremists who hold that their wealth is a sign of divine favor—they're rich because they're virtuous, and it follows that the poor are morally corrupt (because if they were virtuous they'd be rich, too). It finds favor among the very rich because it's a self-serving ideology, and in an age of mass communications—owned by the rich—this is very dangerous indeed.

The history of the West is a history of progress for the majority, of rights that have been dragged with blood and pain from the exclusive hands of the aristocracy. In the developed world today, the middle class are the majority and the biggest beneficiaries of equality. They have educational and recreational opportunities and access to luxuries undreamed of by their peasant or slave ancestors—but it's a precarious security that is still threatened because we humans have a natural competitive tendency and form vaguely hierarchical pack structures, and the guys at the top get deeply nervous when those further down the ladder seem to be climbing it.

(Now, if you plug these views into the picture you can see that I must be some kind of communist. Because I don't hold with the idea that the guys at the top of the pile are special in some mystical, magical, divine-right-of-kings manner, or that markets are holy and perfect and will enrich everybody in every way. Right?)

As an aside: One of the scariest points about the Singularity is that if it generates intelligences that are clearly superhuman in scope, then it undermines the whole concept of legal equality. A Singularity destroys the Enlightenment program and potentially invalidates democracy and liberal values. This is a headache I'm still grappling with. ...

Your work is noted for its astonishingly high ideas quotient—you throw forth concepts with dizzying prodigality. Is this density of notion entirely deliberate, or is some of it spontaneous, even unconscious? Is such extreme intellectual fecundity a value all SF should aspire to?

Stross: I like to play. I like to chase my tail and roll around in smelly swamps of new ideas. I like to get high on novelty. SF has traditionally been about sense of wonder, and when I write I'm trying to write the sort of thing that will give a reader like me a sense-of-wonder trip. I should note that the high idea quotient isn't universal in my fiction. Some stuff is much, much denser than others—the "Accelerando" stories, for example. Other work approximates to ordinary SF in terms of density of ideas (the fantasy/alt-history series I'm working on for Tor, for example).

The dense stuff is extremely difficult to write, or at least to write well. Each of the nine components of "Accelerando" contains about as many ideas as half a normal novel—and writing one of them took about as much effort as half a novel. (In my nightmares, the book version appears and I get a phone call from my agent saying, "They really liked it, and, oh, can they have a sequel ready to run in nine months' time?") I think there's a niche for extreme sense-of-wonder fiction in SF that it won't find elsewhere. The literary mainstream, for example, has focused on hyper-realism and the pursuit of insight into the minds of the protagonists at the expense of ideas, and I'm going in almost the exact opposite direction: I can't see a mainstream critical audience liking "Accelerando." (Although maybe I'm underestimating them.)

But again: Fiction is an art form, and the majority of readers consume it for entertainment. There is, and always will be, a major slot for brain candy—the fictional equivalent of fast food, not very nourishing in the ideas department but comforting to munch on. And I'm very unlikely to ever successfully colonize the pure entertainment market.

You frequently write about the Singularity, in the Vingean sense of the term: our collective passage beyond the technological event horizon. We'll talk of that anon. But first: wouldn't you say your own writing career has passed through a genuine Singularity of its own, a sudden transition in the last few years from relative obscurity to genre fame, your name mentioned everywhere in SF circles? To what do you attribute this breakthrough?

Stross: Several things happened.

First of all: I wrote a lot of stories in the mid-'80s through early '90s, when I was beginning to sell in places like Interzone and New Worlds. But as mentioned, I drifted sideways for a long period in the '90s, with a job as a technical author for a while and a magazine column and nonfiction book to write. I was doing a novel draft and taking two to three years, and then it wouldn't sell anywhere and I'd get zero motivating feedback. It is hard to write in a vacuum for years on end, without encouragement, and nothing encourages you like making a sale. In 1997 I realized that I'd sold one story that year, and it was a reprint. What to do? Well, I could write more novels and get slowly more discouraged until I gave up, or I could press the instant-feedback button, start writing and selling short stories, and get my own morale up a bit. So I resolved to write and sell four short stories a year, and to attack the major American markets, before anything else. I dusted off a couple of stories I'd stalled on years earlier, and startled myself by selling them to a new market—Spectrum SF, in Scotland. Gardner Dozois noticed, and when I wrote "Lobsters" I tried it on him—and he bought it, for Asimov's.

Meanwhile, I finished a novel that actually had a backbone, a plot, some ideas, and that seemed to work. This was nearly a first for me—writing novels is a different form from short fiction, and it took me a long time to get it right. It went out, ended up in an editor's slush pile for a couple of years—and then I ran into Ben Jeapes, an old friend, at a convention, and Ben said, "Why don't you send it to me?" Ben was editor at Big Engine, a smallish British SF publisher (which went into liquidation in 2003). He liked the novel, and offered me a contract.

My real stroke of luck, however, was in reading the right issue of Locus. I saw a small item about an editor from Avon/Eos who was quitting to become an agent. And the gears whirred and clicked in my head and I thought, "New agent, knows the business because she's an ex-editor, but doesn't have a backlist of big-name authors ahead of me." And I sent her an e-mail, and we got talking. Being noticed by Gardner helped a lot, as did having a small British publisher offering a contract, and pretty soon I had an agent based in upstate New York who was hungry (no backlist of big-name authors, remember) and who could give my work the shove it needed.

It's relatively unusual for a U.K.-based author to have a literary agent in the USA, by the way; more often you'll have a British agent who subcontracts U.S. rights to a U.S. agency. But e-mail shrinks distance, and we work fairly well together.

So on the business side, the breakthrough can be attributed to three things—being noticed as a possible next big thing by Gardner Dozois, being offered a book contract and then signing with a competent literary agent. But on the fiction side ...

There's a difference between the act of writing and actually having something interesting to say to your readers. If art is a form of communication, then successful art is about communicating ideas or feelings to other people. And they're the ones who get to judge whether what you're saying is worth paying attention to. It usually takes some degree of insight before you can produce a message that other people will find interesting, and insight into the human condition is one of those things that we tend to acquire with age. It's unusual for a novelist to achieve popular success before their early 30s, at least outside of those heavily stereotyped genres where characterization tends to be thin and plot structures are regular and predictable. And it's no surprise that I'm now in my late 30s, and the work that's now coming out was written from age 34 onwards. Before the mid-'90s I just didn't have the maturity to produce serious work: I had crazy ideas but I tended to flail around, I was really bad at plotting, and characterization was a particular weak point. You can work around those weaknesses at short-story length, but not at novel length.

Which SF authors have most strongly influenced your recent writing, conceptually and stylistically?

Stross: Which ones haven't?

From the top, I'd have to cite Bruce Sterling as my biggest single influence. I was getting his pseudonymously published literary agitprop 'zine Cheap Truth during the '80s, as I was beginning to sell short stories, and reading the cyberpunk canon as it was published. Neuromancer clubbed me between the eyes before I was old enough to realize its weaknesses, or the deeper social subtext Gibson was critiquing. But Sterling's Schismatrix had, if anything, even more impact.

Schismatrix is one of the unsung classics of SF, probably the greatest space opera of the 1980s, elegiac and dense and coldly brilliant, and surprisingly resistant to the tarnish of age that has dimmed the luster of so much other fiction from the period. Schismatrix was a one-shot novel plus some short stories, and Bruce moved on from it—and the critics of the time simply didn't understand the dish he'd shoved under their noses. Alastair Reynolds has built an entire award-winning career out of Schismatrix, 20 years later!

The hell of it is, Sterling keeps producing these insanely different, difficult, brilliant gemstones of books. Holy Fire. Distraction. Heavy Weather. These are all so totally different that they might come from different authors, they all open up entirely new vistas of SF—and he moves on to do something else. He's the Stanley Kubrick of SF, always producing masterpieces and then doing something else instead of a sequel.

When Sterling misses the target, Neal Stephenson is there to follow him up with a bazooka shot. I just wish he'd write more. [A wish fast coming true, with Quicksilver and its upcoming sequels. —NG.] (If you detected echoes of Stephenson in The Atrocity Archives you'd be dead right. Bob Howard is a Neal Stephenson character who's fallen into a Len Deighton novel with bad guys out of H.P. Lovecraft.)

Vernor Vinge is obviously a critically important thinker in the field of SF. As a professor of computer science, he got to the Singularity before anyone else, and we're still exploring his ideas. But he's an Analog kind of writer, rather than a literary stylist, and I suspect this is a weakness—he keeps sprouting these brilliant hard-SF ideas, then explores them from the Analog writer's point of view.

Earlier I mentioned Schismatrix. This list wouldn't be complete without also mentioning Iain Banks, and the whole nine yards of the New British SF—which qualifies as a movement in its own right. I include Ken MacLeod, M. John Harrison, Justina Robson (Natural History), Al Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald, and John Meaney in this context. Something very weird and beautiful is fermenting in British SF this decade, and I can't help but be influenced by the zeitgeist I live in. There's a strong post-Schismatrix flavor to most of this crowd when they write far-future SF, and post-cyberpunk when they write near-future. But it's not your traditional downbeat pessimistic British near-future any more.

Finally, I'd like to throw in a word for John Varley. Of late he's changed pace and stride, but in the 1970s he was a couple of decades ahead of the rest of the field. I was so annoyed by his latest novel, Red Thunder—it's basically a Heinleinian juvenile, a good example of the type but fundamentally less impressive than the work he's capable of—that I sat down and wrote a Varleyesque short novel myself (concerning which, more later). If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, that should tell you about the esteem in which I hold his work.

The Singularity, that digital eschaton beyond which Vernor Vinge and others predict we will pass as an inevitable consequence of our technological acceleration ... In your view, is some form of singularity inevitable? Will it entail Apocalypse, or something superficially more benign?

Stross: I'm not sure I believe in the Singularity. Our history is not one of exponential curves, but of sigmoid curves—where in the early stages of growth the trajectory of the rising technology appears set to go exponential, but after a certain point growth flattens off and tails out. If you have a bunch of overlapping sigmoid curves you get a very steep rise—but no point where the rate of change goes to infinity. Damien Broderick noticed this and calls it the Spike, and if you asked me if I believed in a Spike—a period of very rapid technological acceleration beyond which predicting the future is a murky business—I'd say, "Hell, yes!" But the AI-induced Rapture of the Nerds is another matter entirely.

I'm rather uneasy with the degree to which interviewers and critics focus on this aspect of my work. The Singularity is merely the second huge plot engine to emerge from computer science (the first was artificial intelligence), much as the ideas of nuclear power and interplanetary travel emerged from physics and engineering. And I suspect it won't be the last such idea to come out of algorithmics.

Your series of "Accelerando" stories, published in Asimov's and featuring Manfred Macx, his daughter Amber, and many others, sets out to describe a Singularity in some detail. The pace of change you anticipate here is extraordinary: just a few decades from now, colonization of the solar system, and the transcendence beyond recognition of a large portion of humankind. How creatively challenging has it been, depicting this metamorphic blizzard?

Stross: Massively challenging.

I should start by saying that the "Accelerando" stories are optimistic. They plot a maximum-speed course through a slow takeoff Spike (one that takes some time to happen, and which humans can outlive). A real Spike will probably take a lot longer to reach, and it might have catastrophic consequences. If, for example, a strongly superhuman AI decides that it can rearrange the vacuum so it can do computing using superstrings, we may be looking at an intelligence-inevitably-destroys-the-universe anthropic solution to the Fermi paradox. (That is: We know we're the first intelligent species because we haven't generated a Singularity and destroyed the universe yet. Oops.)

I'd also like to point out that our current society—here in the developed world—is not one that a reasonable middle-class citizen of the USA or any European great power would have predicted in 1903. Some aspects of it would make sense (the USA supplanting the British empire, for example), but others would be unpredictable: the near-total collapse of the monarchical system, for example. And the technologies! The conceptual framework to understand lasers didn't exist until the 1920s—but the things are everywhere today, from music players to telephone exchanges and cat toys. The social changes are even larger, and in some cases simply not obvious. (The effects of mass automobile ownership, for example, or of mobile phones, or cheap textiles.)

In the "Accelerando" sequence, you hint at the plight, the shell-shock, of those left behind by the wave-front of Singularity, left merely human; more detail concerning this emerges in "Jury Service", your collaborative novella with Cory Doctorow, and in Singularity Sky. How much sympathy do you feel for such evolutionary laggards?

Stross: Lots—because I am destined to be one!

We lose flexibility with age, and adaptability. And most of us who are alive today won't reap the full benefits of a Spike—unless it also produces byproducts such as a cure for senescence.

Fiction, because it's an art form we spin for entertainment, is dangerously preoccupied with heroic exceptionalism. We tend to relate to heroes and autocrats who, if we met them in real life, we would be vehemently opposed to. The same goes for the Singularity. These are stories about Interesting Times, in the sense of the Chinese curse—good to read about, but not good to live through.

The later "Accelerando" stories push forwards onto a galactic stage, offering glimpses of countless alien cultures, further vistas of Singularity-like events. When do you expect to publish the remaining episodes in the cycle, and how is the novel version, Accelerando, shaping up?

Stross: Story #7 is due out late in 2003, and story #8 will follow in 2004. I'm working on story #9. Subject to their schedule, Ace should be publishing the novel in mid-2005. (Finishing it is next on my to-do list.)

Singularity Sky, recently published by Ace, is a highly colorful, rather romantic space opera. You've acknowledged the exciting zeitgeist of the current British "New Space Opera," the realm of Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, etc.; how closely does your space opera correspond with theirs?

Stross: The "New Space Opera" is very unlike traditional space opera—as David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer observed in a cogent essay recently. My thinking started out years ago, when I had a mildly bad reaction to something Iain Banks wrote (Consider Phlebas, I think)—I just didn't buy the tech, the setup, and a load of other aspects of the Culture. Not because it wasn't fun to read, but because the bits he hadn't thought through as tightly were straight out of the same cobwebby wardrobe as E.E. Smith's books.

If faster-than-light travel is possible at all, then there will probably be six different ways to do it, with varying drawbacks and benefits. If humans ever colonize other worlds, then if you show me a planet with a single government I'll show you the mass graves. If we ever see warships duking it out between the stars, the great Napoleonic naval fleet actions of David Weber will be far less likely than the equivalent of a dugout canoe running into a ballistic missile submarine. And those are just some of the annoying questions I tend to ask when I read trad space operas.

But aside from that ... I'd place Singularity Sky firmly within the scope of the New British Space Opera. It's just taken a bit longer than expected to surface.

Singularity Sky is very much about a clash of cultures: pre-Singularity (a Tsarist-derived sentimental feudalism) and post-Singularity (the feckless, novelty-besotted Festival of Fools). Would it be fair to say that you consciously modeled this conflict on the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5: the impatiently innovative Japanese versus the doddering Russian imperium, the doomed voyage of the Tsar's Baltic fleet?

Stross: Yes. That was exactly the naval campaign I wanted to base it on—the Voyage of the Damned is one of the weird, great anomalies of 20th-century history. A battle fleet is sent on a desperate mission that takes it three times further than any fleet has sailed before, burning insane amounts of fuel (a third of a million tons of coal exchanged at sea to keep the boilers running), fighting bizarre problems (sailors being shipped home in straitjackets, destroyers overrun by the sailors' exotic pets), mistakenly shooting up a powerful neutral party's fishing fleet ... and then, after an epic voyage, when they reach their destination, they're blown out of the water in the space of three hours flat by a technologically and tactically superior force.

David Weber, the arch-proponent of Traditional (as opposed to New) Space Opera, likes to use Napoleonic battles as set pieces. I decided to do something a little different ...

Is the Festival of Fools in part your satire on postmodernism?

Stross: Yes. Postmodernism is all very well, but there's a part of me that is a brute materialistic philistine, which believes in the Cold Equations and blows a hearty raspberry at the idea that absolute reality is irrelevant and that ideas carry as much weight as experiments (if you'll pardon the reductio ad absurdum, reducing postmodernism to a parody of itself). It helps to look back to modernism, which was itself originally conceived of as a forward-looking materialistic doctrine and a reaction against the previous romanticism, and to realize that modernism, too, has enormous problems. I don't like the messy divorce between the sciences and the arts that seems to characterize the post-Victorian age: I don't think it's a healthy sign for our society that its cultural consciousness is so far divorced from the machinery that powers it. Or that the engines of productivity are so blind to aesthetics and moral sensibility. It cuts both ways.

Singularity Sky is to have a sequel, The Iron Sunrise. Will the protagonists of the first novel resurface there, and can your readers anticipate more space-operatic and transtemporal shenanigans?

Stross: Yes. (But recall, the New Republic that featured so prominently in Singularity Sky was but an eccentric and backward corner of the universe as a whole. Iron Sunrise is set elsewhere, and thus has a very different feel.)

Your first novel actually to appear in print—in serialized form, in Spectrum SF—was The Atrocity Archive, a brilliant melding of spy thriller, alternate history, and esoteric mathematics with Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. How did this spin on Lovecraft (also superbly on view in "A Colder War," included in your excellent collection, Toast) originally occur to you?

Stross: James Gunn's The Magicians is something I stumbled across years ago. Again: Larry Niven's Convergent series hinted at a link between demonology and mathematics. Numerology has ancient and well-documented links to the study of the occult (through Kabbalah and astrology, to name but two routes), so it seemed apposite to ask: If you take this as a given, and add computers—machines for doing symbolic manipulation fast—where can you go?

I've had a guilty fondness for the mythos for a very long time. Lovecraft's horrors were the logical inversion of the science-fictional sense of wonder—he looks at the stars and instead of thinking, "Wow, we could go out there and meet marvelous aliens!" he thinks, "Eek! There might be hideous ancient monsters out there and they might be able to come here and eat us!" You can take much of Lovecraft's output and recast it in science-fictional drag. "A Colder War" was an explicit riff on HPL's "At the Mountains of Madness": a sequel set in the same universe, during the Cold War, which reinvigorated Lovecraft's shopworn horrors by injecting something truly horrific (fear of nuclear annihilation). Only now I look into it I find that Bruce Sterling got there first with a short story called something like "The Ineffable." Dammit!

In addition to SF, I've wanted for a long time to write a traditional British spy thriller. Not a James Bond novel—Bond is fundamentally about as interesting in the context of spy thrillers as Superman is in the context of superhero comics—but something that plays off the seedy, bureaucratic, dingy nature of the British secret state. And it seemed not unreasonable to put the two together, which is how The Atrocity Archive arose.

The Atrocity Archive finally appears in a hardcover edition next year, from Golden Gryphon Press; you're adding a sequel novella, making the book The Atrocity Archives. In what direction will the new novella, "The Concrete Jungle," take your mythos scenario? Are further episodes possible?

Stross: No comment on the direction thing—let it be a surprise!

As for further episodes, the answer is: yes. I was actually planning a trilogy at one point, with two more books to follow: The Jennifer Morgue (in the style of Ian Fleming) and The Nightmare Stacks (in the style of Christopher Hodder-Williams, who independently invented the technothriller in the UK in the 1950s, and is unjustifiably obscure these days). I'm now less certain about the last book, but have notes towards a different one (titled The Fuller Memorandum, in the style of Adam Hall). All I need to do is find a publisher and a spare year or so in which to write them.

Your major series of alternate-history novels gets under way next year with The Family Trade, published by Tor. Is this sequence SF, fantasy or a mixture? And for how many volumes do you intend it to run?

Stross: The sequence looks like SF, or fantasy, or a mixture, at this time. It should be accessible to fantasy readers, but there's a science-fictional conceit underpinning it—perhaps the nearest analogy would be with a cross between H. Beam Piper's "Paratime" stories and Zelazny's Amber books (minus the magic).

A couple of hundred years ago, in a parallel timeline where the East Coast of North America harbors a high-medieval culture, the descendants of an itinerant tinker discover a heritable ability to walk to other worlds. The talent is restricted both in frequency of use and the mass that they can transport with it, and the other timeline they travel to—ours—is not massively more advanced than their own, but nevertheless the ability gives them an edge in shipping merchandise around. Fast-forward 200 years, and with access to Fed Ex (in our world) and automatic weapons, the tightly linked group of families that constitute the Clan have become the Medicis of their world—newly rich, but beset by powerful enemies and insecure. And they haven't reckoned with the sudden appearance of a long-lost prodigal daughter, now grown to maturity and working as an investigative journalist for a major business magazine ...

Currently, Tor want three volumes. Two are written, and number three should be delivered early in 2004. They're short by fantasy standards—only 100,000 words each. I'm not certain how many the entire series will run to, but the immediate plans call for another two books to tie up the current storyline, and I have a subsequent story to tell that would take two books at this length. That makes, oh, seven books. Or about the same page count as the first three volumes of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time.

Are any other projects on the horizon? Of course, you have a lot of irons in the literary fire as is, and you recently got married ...

Stross: Earlier this year I got bitten by the John Varley bug and wrote a short novel called "Glasshouse"—a psychological thriller and exploration of gender issues in a far-future space-operatic universe very different from that of Singularity Sky. (No word on when it'll be published yet—it's too far ahead.) I might end up revisiting that universe if I have a story to tell that specifically needs it.

But right now I'm running scared of planning too far ahead. I know pretty much my workload for the next year; if I plan everything too far in advance then by the time I get to it it'll be boring. Worse, it'll be locked onto railway tracks, so that if something new and brilliant occurs to me I won't be able to get to it for years.

"Glasshouse" appeared, almost fully formed, in my head between 2:30 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. in the afternoon of March 23, 2003, while I was at the pub nattering with a friend. I held it off for all of two weeks or so, until April 8th, when the compulsion to start writing became too strong to resist, and the first draft emerged in just three weeks of obsessive 12-hour days. (It'll take a lot more work to get the final polished draft nailed down, of course.) This sort of mad creative fit isn't how I usually work, but something like it happens every so often—it's how "Lobsters" appeared—and I want to leave time in my schedule for it to happen again.

I like surprising myself...

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Also in this issue: The cast and crew of Looney Tunes: Back in Action


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