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...

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