Thursday, October 9, 2008

Interview with Charles Stross - Interviews (SD #56)

Often compared to such writers as Alastair Reynolds and Richard Morgan, Charles Stross is a part of the new wave of hard sf authors. His first novel Singularity sky was nominated for the Hugo award in 2003 and was published recently in Bg. Since then the author has been nominated for a number of awards, winning in the last two years the Prometheus award and the Locus award. Before he went on to become a SF writer Stross has worked on RPG-s. An interesting fact is that the Planescape: Torment races - the Ghitzarai and the Githyanki are his creation. The author was kind enough to agree to an interview with ShadowDance. Enjoy


ShadowDance: You've been described as a cyberpunk/postcyberpunk author. Do you like such labels and if yes, how would you label yourself?

Charles Stross: Nope.

I was, of course, about as heavily influenced by the cyberpunks as you'd expect of any not-very-worldly teenager growing up in the late 1970s to early 1980s; I was hit hard by Neuromancer, and it took me a good five years to shake off the surface glitz and start thinking analytically about what it all really meant.

But I am not a cyberpunk.

The Cyberpunk wave in written SF was rooted in the 1980s, a period when (in the west) a major wave of right wing political reaction to the period of the 1960s and early 1970s was breaking. It was a period dominated by corporate raiders, increased internationalization of big business, the brief ascendancy of Japan as a superpower, and huge and pervasive attacks on the social and cultural commons attacks which were so successful that the entire centre of political discourse was shifted to the far right for a generation. (There are signs of a slow shift back towards the centre, but that sort of thing takes a long time to establish itself.)

Writers write about their hopes and fears for the present and SF writers reflect these hopes and fears via speculation about the future. The preoccupations of the cyberpunks with a world dominated by huge, faceless corporations, with ordinary people living a debased and degraded life on "the street", seem almost quaint these days. We're living in the future they were writing about as William Gibson demonstrated in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country it is now possible to write cyberpunk fiction *set in the past*.

SD: In your two novels published in BulgariaSingularity Sky and Iron Sunrise – you describe a universe which is a result of a time-paradox, but where time-travel is forbidden. Can we expect from you to break this taboo in the forthcoming books of the series?

CS: No, because there will be no more books in that series. (The internal structure has inconsistencies -- not obvious in those two books such that I can't go back to them and make it work for me.)

SD: Which of your books do you think defines your interests in literature best?

CS: Possibly Halting State, which (ironically) might come nearest to fitting the definition of "cyberpunk". It's a near-future police procedural novel, set in an independent Republic of Scotland, in a world where the online roleplaying games and VR environments such as Second Life have become pervasive, integral parts of everyday existence. It's my best shot (so far) at predictive near-future SF.

(On the other hand I might just be focussing too much on it right now because I'm currently planning the sequel, 419 a novel about spam, and where it's going.)

But I do a whole range of different types of SF; the two Eschaton novels aren't exactly typical...

SD: Have you ever included yourself as a character in your own books? If yes, which one?

CS: Nope, never done that.

SD: Do you think that the settled and secure life that most contemporary writers live weakens their ability to write dynamic stories? Is it necessary for a person to have lived through a real adventure, to be able to describe one convincingly?

CS: I hope you'll excuse me for saying this, but writing is a very unstable and insecure life! It's badly, erratically paid (except for a very lucky few), and there's no obvious career ladder, so most authors have to hold down other jobs at the same time and have done other things in the past.

The question of adventure is an interesting one. Do you need to have served in a military organization in time of war to write war fiction? Should one be an astronaut before one can write fiction set in outer space? I think the only sensible answer is "obviously not", because if you pick the alternative answer and take it to its logical conclusion you end up requiring all aspiring fantasy writers to have personal experience of dragons, Dark Lords, and so on. (Which is somewhat unreasonable.)

On the other hand, there's a reason most novelists don't publish significant work before the age of 30. You need life experience, and lots of it, and insight into how other people think, before you can write convincing fiction about characters who the reader will care about. (And the flip side of this point is that lot of SF writers -- myself, for example -- start publishing short stories a long time before they're ready to do novels; the exigencies of characterisation are much weaker in the shorter forms, and the availability of magazines and anthology markets means that it's possible for writers who're still learning their craft to get some feedback in public.)

SD: The Speculative Fiction genre constantly conquers new territories not only with the help of highly regarded "mainstream" authors like Murakami, Cunningham, Pyncheon and McCarthy, but also thanks to SFF authors like Mieville, Vandermeer, Duncan, Gaiman etc. Do you think this is a sign for what literature is going to look like in the near future?

CS: That's really a question for somebody else to tackle.

SD: When you start writing a story, do you try to avoid certain cliches and tropes, or you don't concern yourself with that as long as the story works?

CS: It depends what I'm trying to achieve with the story.

Cliches are only cliches because they've been over-used. If you can think of a new angle to use to look at an old stand-by, then it stops being a cliche.

And sometimes it's helpful to use cliches. Readers know what they are; they're comfortable bits of furniture that don't force the readers to think too hard about what's going on, so you can lead them to focus on the important new stuff you're trying to introduce. (Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise used that technique lots of space operatic cliches wrapped around some new ideas, to make the new stuff easier to deal with. In Accelerando I dropped the padding; the result is a difficult, dense novel that some readers love but others have lots of trouble getting into.)

On the other hand, sometimes there's a huge gain to be made by forcing yourself to invent everything anew. In Halting State -- a novel in the near future, preoccupied with computer crime I forced myself to abstain from using the words "software", "computer", and "program" (and a bunch of other technical terms) deliberately, because I wanted to convey the idea that these things are an intrinsic part of society, not something notable in their own right. (Just as we don't usually describe the type of engine in an automobile or aircraft when we're talking about driving or flying somewhere.) I also adopted the discipline of the Mundane SF manifesto and refused to use any non-existent technologies or sciences in the book -- because I was looking for a believable future. Obviously there'll be stuff in ten years time that *isn't* believable right now because it hasn't been discovered or developed yet -- but if I permitted the novel to contain stuff that's obviously imaginary, it would sacrifice its right to claim to be at least reasonably predictive. (And I was trying to write a predictive novel.)

SD: Do you feel that active communication with other authors is productive for your writing, and do you think there is a place for solitary geniuses nowadays?

CS: Writing is a solitary occupation -- it's probably one of the last remaining creative niches where a single person does 90% of the work -- and so it tends to attract solitary geniuses... and solitary idiots (who shun feedback that might educate them).

On the other hand, most of us chat like crazy! Writing, being a solitary occupation, is even worse for those of us who do it full time; we don't have the social contact most folks get by going to work every day. So we chat, via the internet, blogs, email, and so on -- and we go to conventions and get out and meet people. As the business of fiction is the exploration of the human condition, you can't really do that unless you like or are at least interested in other people.

SD: How does blogging and visiting fansites influence your creative abilities or your habits? Have you ever been in a situation when you knew what your readers expect/want from a book of yours before it was finished? If yes, what did you do about it?

CS: I actively engage in dialogue with my fans. But I also enjoy surprising them! So I try not to do exactly what they expect...

SD: Have you been strongly influenced by another author? If yes, who?

CS: I'm influenced by too many authors to enumerate.

SD: What do you think of writing workshops?

CS: It depends how they're run -- but when they're run well, they're indispensable. I learned much of my craft through workshopping, and I wouldn't be where I am today without them.

On the other hand, a workshop won't improve your writing if you don't have the urge to write in the first place. And you won't get anything out of a workshop process unless you're willing to listen to people bearing bad news about your work and to listen critically, filtering out subjective criticisms but listening to reasonable ones. (There's always a proportion of an audience I think around 20% who *never* like whatever story they're reading. You learn to recognize this and discount it. On the other hand, you need to learn to recognize when someone didn't like your story for a specific reason that you can do something about and you need to act on it.)

SD: How important do you think Science Fiction is in general?

CS: In the USA (and the UK), Science Fiction is about 2.5% of the published fiction market. It is, however, about 30% of the Hollywood high budget movie output, and accounts for a big share of TV and computer games.

In absolute terms, I'm not sure we're individually important. But collectively, we can exert huge pressure on society and sometimes one of us comes up with an idea that is so huge it outlasts us. (I'd cite George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 as one example of the impact SF can have on broader society.)

SD: Could you share an advice you think important for aspiring authors (apart from "work hard and don't give up")?

CS: Yes: don't go into writing if you want to get rich! You need to want to write, not because you want to live the lifestyle of a rich and famous writer. It's a sordid, underpaid, insecure occupation, and only a madman would want to do it. (Yes, I'm not entirely normal. I admit it...).

SD: If you could choose, which one of your books do you think should be published in Bulgaria next?

CS: Probably The Atrocity Archives. Just to demonstrate how different my other writing is...

Interview with Richard Morghan - Interviews (SD #56)

Richard Morgan is well known name not only on the world SF scene, but also in Bulgaria. His latest SF novel Black Man/Thirteen (published in Bg as Variant 13) has recently won the Arthur Clarke award. After that Morgan switched genres with his newest book - The Steel Remains. Opinions about it vary, but they unanimously agree that it's a really provocative Fantasy story. Mr. Morgan has kindly agreed to do an interview with ShadowDance in which you may read his thoughts on the art of translation, political correctness and his future plans.


ShadowDance: In Bulgaria Altered Carbon was published under the title Supercommando. You've mentioned in other interviews that you're not bothered by your books having different titles abroad. Still, aren't you afraid that these changes may send the reader the wrong message and lead to a disappointment when the book isn't what they expected it to be?

Richard Morgan: Well, that is always a risk, yes. But I guess you’ve got to assume your various publishers know what they’re doing with the market – I don’t imagine they want to sell less of my books! Supercommando does sound a little off-centre for the subject matter of Altered Carbon, but I suppose in very broad terms it does describe Kovacs, more or less. So I don’t know – you tell me. Am I popular in Bulgaria? Has the marketing worked? Maybe the readers who were looking for straightforward military SF under that title have been charmed by my unexpectedly subtle vision… :) And if they haven’t, well – too late, I guess!

SD: Regarding Altered Carbon, it was indeed very successful. One could say the book made you popular in Bulgaria and has sold out, with people still searching for copies. We don't know if the book's success was simply because of its title, but we doubt it ;) However, I'd like to ask you a more general question concerning this, if you don't mind. How much freedom do you think a translator should have? Choosing another title is one thing, but what about changing the text itself to better suit the cultural environment of the targeted readers?

RM: I think a translator should be free to adapt *stylistically* as much as they like, ie to re-shape the language as much as necessary to convey a fluid and idiomatic translation – that is after all what being a good translator entails. But once it comes to changing the *substance* of the text, I'm very much against the idea; it seems to me that such a step simply leaves too much room for abuse. You'd have dictatorial regimes everywhere only allowing "authorised" versions of books that didn't upset their political and cultural world view, and individual translators or publishers deciding that they knew better than the author how some aspect of the novel should be developed. And the worst of it would be that people would be unaware of the trick. They'd truly believe they were reading what the author intended them to read – which might in some ways protect them from culture shock, or make them like the book more than they otherwise might, but that isn't the point. Once you start to do this kind of thing, the book ceases to be a translation and can only really be described as "an adaptation", and – unless you label it clearly as such, in which case I don't think many people would buy it – that strikes me as fundamentally dishonest. The point is, you can't – or at least shouldn't – interfere with the original author's communication; that message has to be transmitted as accurately as possible, for better or for worse.

SD: Can you tell us anything about the forthcoming Altered Carbon movie?

RM: No, not really. Or at least, I can’t tell you much. It’s still in the works, still grinding through the Hollywood machine. The last I heard, the movie was scheduled for a 2009 release date, and had a director attached, one James McTeigue, who directed V for Vendetta and was also assistant director on the Matrix movies. But as to what all that means in real terms, well… that’s anybody’s guess. Keep your fingers crossed!

SD: Should we expect more Takeshi Kovacs novels?

RM: Not for the foreseeable future, no. First and foremost, that’s because I now have a stack of other work to pursue. But also, my problem after Woken Furies was that I couldn’t see where else to take the character that wouldn’t just be a re-tread of previous work. I hate the idea of turning into a genre series hack, churning out endless, soulless clones of the same book year after year – and with Kovacs that looked to me like a very real danger. That said, if I ever find a way to bring him back with any credibility, I’ll do it. I miss the old bastard as much as anyone!

SD: The city of Altered Carbon is called Bay City. Is this name an intentional homage to Raimond Chandler, or was it chosen for a different reason?

RM: No, I don’t recall Chandler’s use of the name, so if it is from that source, then it’s unconscious. There is a real Bay City (in Michigan, I think) but it’s quite a small town, nothing like the city I imagined for the novel. And I seem to remember that a Bay City, either that one or possibly another invented one, appeared in a book by Eric Van Lustbader that I read as a teenager. But in the end, I think what it comes down to is that wherever I’d heard the name, I just liked the way it sounded. Also, I’d spent time in San Francisco and its surroundings, and it always struck me that the whole bay area really seemed like a single urban entity, rather than the collection of different cities and towns it is currently defined as. I’ve been told since, by a number of Californians, that most San Francisco or Oakland residents would rather die than see their city subsumed into a whole this way. Sigh. Oh well, that’s the benefit of writing SF, I guess – you make up whatever you like, whatever you need for the story.

SD: The Speculative Fiction genre constantly conquers new territories not only with the help of highly regarded "mainstream" authors like Murakami, Cunningham, Pyncheon and McCarthy, but also thanks to SFF authors like Mieville, Vandermeer, Duncan, Gaiman etc. Do you think this is a sign for what literature is going to look like in the near future?

RM: Well, I certainly hope so. There’s no doubt that, as a genre, SFF is better poised than most other types of literature to take on the 21st century – more than ever before, we live in science fictional times. And yes, novels by the genre writers you mention (and you should include Geoff Ryman in that list as well) are increasingly offering a bridge into a more generalized literary terrain. But at the same time, it’s important to realize that snobbery and hierarchical dynamics are an endemic part of human nature, so the attitude of the mainstream critical establishment isn’t likely to shift very fast. Those guys don’t want to accept SFF as valid fiction, because too much of their own sense of superiority is bound up in their attitude. That kind of thing, like any other type of knee-jerk prejudice, is very hard to beat. So guys like Murakami and Pynchon will continue to be defined as mainstream literature, however solidly they lean on the staples of the SFF field. And the rest of us will continue to be disparaged in literary circles as something less than valid. It’s a dynamic that has nothing to do with what’s really happening, and everything to do with how people want to see things. But what’s really happening is, yes, a loosening of the boundaries between genres, and that can only be a good thing.

SD: Do you think that the settled and secure life that most contemporary writers live weakens their ability to write dynamic stories? Is it necessary for a person to have lived through a real adventure, to be able to describe one convincingly?

RM: Not at all. This is fiction we’re talking about. Writing good fiction is a skill-set, and at base what it really amounts to is the art of telling convincing lies in narrative form. Climbing mountains, robbing banks, killing people with a knife or an assault rifle – these are other, entirely different skill-sets, and the fact you’re good at one or more of these activities is no kind of guarantee you’ll be any good at telling the story of how you did it afterwards. In fact, I can remember reading one book written by a famous mountaineer about his experiences and being surprised at how dull he managed to make it all seem. The things he’d been through ought to have been riveting, but the way he wrote it down was anything but.

However, what all these settled and secure writers (myself included) do need to do is accept, is that their lives are not very interesting in themselves and that for that reason they should really write about something else. There’s altogether too much introspective I’m-depressed-in-a-small-London-flat-and-mindless-job fiction out there, and it’s the result of writers – often technically very talented or skilled writers – believing that they themselves are an intrinsically fascinating subject for a novel.

Of course, this isn’t to say that life experience is not a valuable aid to writing good fiction. Travelling and living in other countries, teaching people from other cultures, living a varied and sometimes difficult life – all these things have fed into my fiction, have helped me develop a credible human dynamic in the story-telling. But you have to recognize that experience as nothing more than a handy raw material, something you borrow from and re-shape, if you have it to hand, or fake if you don’t. In the end I don’t believe it’s actually necessary. The only really indispensable thing a good writer of fiction needs is a first rate imagination. Everything else you can go dig up or research as and when you need it.

SD: And since you mention background research, how much do you stress on it in your work? Is it necessary to have all the background details at hand when you start writing, or do you feel confident to fill possible gaps as you go along?

RM: Different writers will handle this in different ways – but personally, I would die of boredom if I had to have all the background sorted out before I started writing. I don't tend to plan my novels very carefully at the start, I prefer to see where the initial inspiration will take me, and then do the necessary background reading and fact-checking as needed along the way.

SD: When you start writing a story, do you try to avoid certain cliches and tropes, or you don't concern yourself with that as long as the story works?

RM: The latter, definitely. Tropes and clichés exist for a reason – they are short-cut cultural descriptors, things that have worked well enough in the past to become embedded in our cultural consciousness. If you can make use of them in what you’re writing, then sure, go right ahead and do it. If you can’t, though, they still provide a useful starting point – you just break them apart to see what works better and why.

SD: Your forthcoming novel – The Steel Remains – is your first attempt at fantasy. You give rather strange definitions of the book ("Weird Old Epic Noir" being my favourite). Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about the novel and its sequels?

RM: About the sequels, almost nothing – I haven’t planned those books yet (and planning has never been my strong suit anyway), let alone started writing them. What they’ll contain is anybody’s guess. About The Steel Remains itself, I can only say that it is the fantasy novel I’ve always wanted to write, that it’s as brutal, bloody, overtly political and explicitly sexual as anything I’ve yet written, and that it has absolutely no real good guys in it. Think Kovacs with broadswords, and you won’t be far out.

SD: What do you think of the recent "new wave" of Fantasy, heralded by names like Scott Lynch, R. Scott Bakker, Stephen Erikson, Hal Duncan etc.? Do you think the genre is finally moving away from the cliches most people associate it with?

RM: Well first of all, that’s not something I’m really qualified to judge, because I have only the most cursory knowledge of this new wave. Ninety percent of the fantasy I’ve ever read was written before 1980. But from what I do know, I think it’s less a case of moving away from the genre clichés, and more a matter of re-wiring them at a raised level of engagement. For instance, Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates is replete with "clichéd" genre elements, but the genius of that book is not in the material itself. Erikson has chosen some well-worn fantasy staples – ancient races, pitched battles, dragons, magic – but what’s interesting is the level of human intensity he brings to bear on the tale. And clearly that’s got to be good for the genre – the more human your story is, the better literature it’s going to be.

SD: What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer? What is it about the act of writing that gives you greatest pleasure?

RM: Strengths and weaknesses – well, that’s really not for me to say. You’d have to ask the readers. What I would say is that all my work is character-driven, with character interaction as the motive force for both plot and ultimately world-building too (I build the background in direct response to the back-story needs of the characters as they progress through the book). So those readers for whom plot is the major factor may feel that I don’t move fast enough, and those who love a map at the beginning of each volume and exhaustive detail on the landscape we’re passing through may also be disappointed. But if character development is important to you, then I’m your man. And certainly one of the things that gives me most pleasure in working on a book is watching the characters grow into themselves as the story progresses.

SD: What do you think of writing workshops?

RM: Whatever works for you. I’ve never attended one, but that proves nothing. I’ve never been surfing either, but I hear it’s great.

SD: What do you think about the fanfics flooding the internet? Do you consider them a mockery of an author's work, or a way for a person to express their love for a certain book? Would you be flattered or insulted to find a fanfic based on your own works?

RM: I haven’t actually seen any fanfic, so I only have the loosest sense of how it works. But I suppose imitation is always the highest form of flattery, and I can’t see how it would have a detrimental affect on my sales, so it would be hard to get pissed off about it. Beyond that, though, I confess I’m a bit mystified by the phenomenon. My question to the fanfic writers would be why, if you have the urge (and the technical skill) to write, would you choose to waste time aping someone else’s characters and settings? Why not just invent some of your own stuff, albeit influenced by what you’ve read and liked. Hell, you might even come up with something you can publish, and actually get paid for it!

SD: Black Man/Thirteen made it to neither the Hugo, nor the Nebula finals, even though the majority of readers labeled it as one of the best SF books of 2007. What do you think is the reason? Do you believe the American market is too conservative when it comes to

an author criticizing the American way of life?

RM: There is certainly an element of the US market which is conservative, but I’m not sure you can lay my failure to get a Nebula or a Hugo at its door. Black Man/Thirteen has sold very well in America, and has received some very good reviews from American critics. And it’s worth remembering that it was an American panel that handed me the John W Campbell award for Market Forces, a novel that’s savagely critical of American business practices, neo-colonial foreign policy and neo-liberal capitalism in general. So I’m inclined to blame bad luck rather than a political agenda. Maybe the overt critique of current trends in US politics did put some people off, but I think what’s more likely and more important is that there were just a lot of other good books out there and, well, they can’t all make it to a list that’s only five books long in each case. Besides which, (big grin!) I’m well contented with winning the Arthur C. Clarke award instead!

SD: What do you think about the blooming "political correctness" in America in recent years and don't you feel it is a form of severe censure? How does or will it affect literature in general and your works in particular?

RM: In fact, I think political correctness has well and truly bloomed, and is now on the decline. People have seen the damage it’s done, and there’s a definite backlash now. In a sense, it’s a great shame, because like a lot of ideas born on the ideological left, political correctness had a certain core value when it started out. (It’s good to make racism unacceptable, it’s good to stop the denigration of women for their sex, and so forth.) But unfortunately – also like a lot of leftist trends and tendencies – the original idea got hi-jacked by entirely the wrong people, and they fucked it up for everybody else. As to how all this affects me, I’m really none too worried. Despite the title change, Black Man came out in the US as exactly the same novel it was in the UK. Thing is, there’s a lot of talk about how the pc issue is going to affect freedom of expression, but I don’t see much hard evidence of it happening. I think we have far more to fear on that front from the right wing media machine, which has proven very adept at stifling free expression over the last thirty years.

SD: Do you feel that active communication with other authors is productive for your writing, and do you think there is a place for solitary geniuses nowadays?

RM: Well, I’m certainly solitary – don’t know if that makes me a genius! But seriously, no, I don’t find communication with other authors helpful – or unhelpful! – in my work. I find it socially very pleasant, stimulating at a personal level, and a nice change from what is, let’s face it, a very solitary profession. But as with most professionals, there is a marked tendency in such social events to (at least try to) avoid talking shop. In the end novel writing is work you have to do alone, and I find that suits me fine.

SD: How does blogging and visiting fansites influence your creative abilities or your habits? Have you ever been in a situation when you knew what your readers expect/want from a book of yours before it was finished? If yes, what did you do about it?

RM: No, that’s never happened to me. But anyway, as I said earlier, I write for myself. I’m not interested in what other people want out of me. If they can’t find what they’re looking for in my fiction, they just have to try someone else. That said, blogging and surfing do occupy rather a lot of my time these days – perhaps rather too much, especially as delivery deadline start to encroach…

SD: Could you share an advice you think important for aspiring authors (apart from "work hard and don't give up")?

RM: Know the market, and if you’re not prepared to write for it rather than for yourself, then be prepared instead to spend some time starving in your garret. Artistic integrity is wonderful, but before you commit to having some, you should be aware of what it may cost you. And work hard and don’t give up.

SD: Do you wish to share something with your Bulgarian readers?

RM: Uhm – hope you like the books.