Charles Stross – author, creator of The Merchant Princes and The Laundry Files

Charles Stross is not only a prolific author, author, having two new novels and several reissues due out in this year, he is a diverse one, with ongoing series including The Laundry Files and The Merchant Princes, two novels each in his Halting State, Eschaton and Saturn’s Children universes plus several standalone novels. An in demand speaker with international commitments in addition to his heavy writing schedule, Geek Chocolate were delighted to finally catch up with him over lunch on the afternoon of Friday 3rd May to talk over his huge body of work.

Geek Chocolate – You have got a busy release schedule this year, though some of it is catching up. The Rapture of the Nerds has finally received a proper UK release about six months after the US release. What was the delay?

Charles Stross – The reason for the delay with The Rapture of the Nerds is down to digital rights management and creative commons and free e-books. As you know, Cory Doctorow insists on everything coming with a creative commons release from day one and is inimical to DRM. I happen to agree with him on the DRM matter, but selling a title with no DRM and with a pre-existing e-book already out there for free was a tall order.

We had to find a publisher who was willing to do a paper-only release, and these days most of the formerly big six, now big five, insist on acquiring e-rights at the same time. In the end we teamed up with Titan Books for this release and we’re very happy with what they’ve done so far.

GC – And indeed despite the delay, Titan have absolutely gone to town. Normally in the process there will be some sketches of proposed artwork and maybe a couple selected to be trialled before one is finessed, but they actually commissioned a full gallery of wildly divergent covers, any of which would have been good enough for publication.

CS – I didn’t see that! I am to some extent a passenger on this side because we’ve been selling the book from Cory’s agent rather than mine. You’ll notice my name comes second on the cover.

GC – I was struck when reading it that although it was written in collaboration with Cory, I couldn’t tell that there were two voices in there, it felt absolutely constant in tone and style. How did the book come about and what was the actual writing process?

CS – The book came about because we were chatting in email about 2002, 2003, and one of us, I think it was me, suggested we work on a short story together. Sure, says the other, what have you got? I have this folder full of stories, and there are far more beginnings in there than there are complete stories. Sometimes it can take me up to eight years to write a short story. I’ll make a start, give up, then come back to it years later – I’m in the process of doing that right now with a story I’ve been working on for four years. I’ll pass10,000 words later today.

Anyway, I had this stub of a story about a thousand words long in which a guy wakes up in a bathroom with a very unusual hangover, and I threw this at Cory, and Cory wrote another thousand words, and suddenly it just sort of began to evolve, and we basically played ping-pong with this text file in email, adding bits to it.

Because it was an email attachment we could add discussions with each other about where we thought it was going, and when you’re playing ping-pong like that, the first thing you do on receiving the story that the other guy has added a thousand words to is read through it and then edit it and polish it before you add your own material. So every time we went through this cycle, one of us would write a chunk and then the other would edit it and add something to it, which is where the sutures blur over. It’s a fairly effective way of keeping the whole project on track.

GC – It must have also smoothed the process when it was finally passed on to the publisher’s editing process to have been through those revisions.

CS – It needed some editing even so, but we pretty much got through it that way. Also, it didn’t get written in one go. First we wrote an 18,000 word story called Jury Service and had no clear idea what we were doing with it, but Ellen Datlow, one of the big American SF editors, she used to edit Omni then edited the online fiction for, Ellen bought it, much to our surprise, gave us rather a lot of money for it at the time.

So, there it was on and it got a bit of attention, and a year or two later along comes another editor, Lou Anders, who edits Pyr, an SF original publisher in the States now. Back in the day, Lou was editing anthologies and had been commissioned to edit Argosy magazine, one of the longest running uncanny/fantasy magazines in the US. It was going through another of its periodic reboots, and his McGuffin was to do this digest size magazine, beautifully produced, and bundle it with a chapbook containing a long novella or collection of short stories by a star author. I think he started out with a small trade paperback of Michael Moorcock stories.

And he said, can you write me another novella, a sequel to this one, and I’ll print the two of them back to back, and we did another novella called Appeals Court, and the two of them formed a slim chapbook called The Rapture of the Nerds. That was around 2006, 2007, and a couple of things happened then. Cory’s career was skyrocketing, and that year I had my breakthrough novel with Halting State which went back to press two or three times in its first month in hardcover in the US, so suddenly we were both fairly hot.

Tom Doherty, the CEO of Tor, heard about these stories and ordered his editors to buy the Stross/Doctorow collaboration, the novel, and of course there was no novel, and Cory was pretty damn busy, so for a couple of years every March or April I’d email Cory and say “Hey, have you got time to work on a novel with me this year?” “No, I’m way too busy.” Me too, actually. And that’s how things stood until April 1st 2011.

Locus is the trade magazine of the written science fiction fields, and they run April Fools jokes, and sometimes these fall horribly flat, but sometimes they’re actually quite funny. So I look at Locus’ website that day and read a news announcement – “Stross and Doctorow signed to write authorised sequel to Atlas Shrugged,” and according to the article we’d been signed for a seven digit advance, and it runs through a slow plot summary of our proposed sequel
about the children of the mad, selfish objectivist billionaires who set up a socialist utopia, and this just irritated me so I emailed Cory and said “Oi, have you got time again this year? I’m going to be out of contract at the end of the year, how about you?” and he said “Oh, turns out I’ve got six months free.” Okay, let’s hit it.

We turned our agent loose to find out if Tor were actually willing to pay us, because the trouble with a collaboration is each author does 75% of the work of doing it solo. And yes, Tor were actually willing to pay enough money while we did the job, so we sat down and worked on it, and we turned it in and in the fullness of time we ended up with a novel. It was basically provoked by an April Fool’s joke.

GC – A particular passage which made me laugh, and I don’t know which of the two of you wrote it, was about the fascinating personality types and cognitive disorders that drive people to contribute to wikis, especially of something you said at the Science Festival about research – “Wikipedia is your friend.”

CS – I think that was probably Cory. I’m not certain. I think mine was the line about AOL and Facebook.

GC – Another thing that struck me was the way that as Huw travels, he constantly bumps into people who he knows from back home in Wales. Was that a comment on the “global village,” the way that out of seven billion and growing, people of shared interest will invariably encounter each other simply because they run in the same circles?

CS – I think that’s the theme of Cory’s second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, how you form tribes with people you communicate with through social media and you run into them all over the world whenever you travel, but that does actually happen. The world is a very small place these days.

Also it makes it a lot easier to do a plot if you’re not having to introduce wholly new characters every ten pages, and Huw does an awful lot of screaming and running away. My original model for Huw was he’s a curmudgeonly Welsh Green who’s terrified of technologies, he’s the anti-Manfred Macx from Accelerando, and my model for him was Rincewind from Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

GC – In my review of Rapture I commented that the air of bafflement he has coupled with the fact that he is accompanied by a teapot made me think of Arthur Dent in some ways.

CS – That wasn’t deliberate, but Rincewind is permanently accompanied by luggage, and the strange sidekick that may or may not be remotely human or whatever is a useful prop for that sort of picaresque science fictional romp.

GC – Just out this week is the start of the reissues of the Merchant Princes series in omnibus form as The Bloodline Feud, The Traders’ War, and The Revolution Trade in preparation for new stories later in the year. That’s through Tor, who again are giving it plenty of support. When will we see the new stories and what can we look forward to?

CS – You will not see them in 2014 because I’m writing this gigantic slab of fiction. When people ask me I say “I’m committing a Stephenson,” I’m writing this Neal Stephenson sized doorstep, only there will be a couple of dotted lines down the spine so it can come out as a trilogy. I’m due to hand it in next year, September 2014, so fingers crossed it will come out in 2015.

GC – As if you don’t have enough irons in the fire, after five years you’ve revisited the universe of Saturn’s Children with Neptune’s Brood, which is coming from Orbit, your third publisher. That’s a huge leap into the future for that story. Why go back to it now?

CS – Disambiguation: Ace have the rights to my science fiction in North America, Orbit have the rights to the same fiction in the rest of the world including the UK, so it’s a side effect of how I was originally published, it’s not something you should read too much into.

GC – Will Neptune’s Brood be readable as a standalone, or will knowledge of what happened to Freya back in the home solar system be an advantage?

CS – Freya doesn’t appear in this at all, none of the characters from the first book appear in it, it’s a total standalone, although if you’ve read Bit Rot you might get an idea where the society is going.

GC – You approach space travel from a very pragmatic and technical point of view. At the Fiction to Future event a couple of years back at the Edinburgh Science Festival you talked about the “non-trivial” engineering problems of the space elevator, in Saturn’s Children Freya expounds at length on berthing above a fission reactor, and in the short story Bit Rot you chart an expedition cannibalising each other for resources to survive the trip.

CS – Well that was an excuse to write about cannibal robot zombies in space! What can possibly go wrong?

GC – You’ve been doing quite a bit of travelling yourself of late. Has your experience been as terrible as that of your characters?

CS – I don’t think I’ve ever had a flight that was more than three days late. In some cases my characters embark on voyages that take centuries. This unfortunately is the unavoidable reality of space travel. In the absence of magic, well, technologies indistinguishable from magic, we are doomed to space travel taking at a minimum days to reach our Moon, but our Moon is just on the doorstep. To go anywhere significantly distant is going to take months, years, decades.

GC – Last year at the Satellite 3 convention in Glasgow you were talking about the uptake of e-books, particularly in science fiction, where the readers are naturally inclined towards embracing new technology. You’ve blogged at length about the issue of cross compatibility on readers and other issues, but should those be overcome, do you see a time when paperbacks are doomed, with maybe a specialist collector’s niche market for hardbacks such as there now is for vinyl, something akin to what Subterranean Press now

CS – Yes, we’ve already reached that point in some areas. The mass market paperback in the United States which is distributed like a magazine and pulped if unsold, is I think doomed and will be replaced by e-books as disposable literature except at the high end for bestsellers where people want to grab a book to read on the beach on vacation once a year, and if they don’t read a huge amount normally they won’t have an e-book reader.

But the majority of books are sold to maybe ten per cent of the reading public, and those people are likely to switch to e-book readers. On the one hand you have the force of conservatism, the collecting and curatorial urge to have a really nice hardback edition; on the other hand as you get older your vision gets worse, and e-books have a killer feature which paper cannot compete with: zoom. So I see hardcovers remaining as a specialist niche like LPs on vinyl, paperbacks except for bestsellers are probably going to fade away over the next few years.

This is going to be a generational change, it’s going to take twenty years minimum to go to completion. E-books as far as I’m aware have pretty much plateaued out now because the entry level price for an e-book reader is £29 or free if you download it to your smartphone as an app. I think we can reasonably say that people who can’t afford a £29 e-book reader or a free app on a phone they have are not going to be buying books. The days when you had to make an investment of £300 on an e-book reader are now over. We’ve gone past the early adopter phase, we’re now in the phase of people slowly changing what they do.

GC – A recent blog post which I suspect was not to be taken entirely seriously talked about your first movie project, Wasposaurus Rex, but there have recently been successful Kickstarter film projects, Alex Cox with Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero and more prominently, though springing from a different well, Veronica Mars. Should someone approach you about one of your short stories and make a convincing pitch, would you be interested and which do you think would work best?

CS – Yes, I would be interested, but several caveats apply. One is I am not really visually literate, much less skilled at scriptwriting or directing. Two, film scripts don’t map really well onto prose fiction in terms of length. A two hour movie script runs to a hundred and twenty pages, each page has about two hundred and fifty pages of dialogue. The natural equivalent to that in fictional terms is a novella, about thirty thousand words.

If I’m writing novels of around a hundred thousand words or more, you’ve got to throw away maybe a third to two thirds of that content to come up with a script. You’ve got to pare stuff down, simplify stuff, work out what you can’t convey through dialogue but you have to show in the background. And some of the ideas, and I’m primarily an ideas driven science fiction writer, are very difficult to convey visually. You don’t want to try a movie that has to periodically break for an Open University documentary.

GC – Something you had genuinely been working on that never moved ahead, as is perhaps a more frequent occurrence in television than many people realise, was a revival of the legendary BBC show Doomwatch, a show where unfortunately a full third of the original episodes no longer exist in the archives. What was your approach and your hopes for that?

CS – First things first, I was sort of pulled in as a science fiction consultant with Jeremy Dyson of The League of Gentleman as a producer, but Jeremy had to pull out due to commitments to other projects, and I lack contacts at the BBC, so this is essentially moribund at this point.

My line and Jeremy’s was that Doomwatch was a very interesting show, though most of the surviving episodes are not really viewable as science fiction any more. Genetically modified super-intelligent rats? There’s laboratories with those in them all around the world. Terrorist nukes? That’s not science fiction, that’s something we get worried about in reality. Bacteria from a reprocessing plant that eat plastic and get loose with catastrophic results? Again, it’s too plausibly contemporary.

GC – Which if anything means that the show is relevant.

CS – Oh, yes, it is relevant and prophetic, but it’s not science fiction. If you did Doomwatch with its original level of ideation these days, basically you would have a thriller. So to reboot Doomwatch, what we were looking at was firstly a government department staffed by scientists protecting us from threats due to science and technology. I came up with acronym DEAT – we do not add the H – Department for Existential Anthropic Threats, as in it’s the sort of threat where you have to get your response right first time, because if you don’t the human species has just gone extinct.

I was coming up with various science fictional plot approaches we could use that could break through the medium. Think of it as Yes, Minister meets hideous existential scientific threats, for example alien invasion by means of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, looking for radio or optical signals. Okay, what if what we’re actually being invaded by is software configured to take over the minds of anyone who cracks the communication code. A whole bunch of interlocking ideas on that level. Stuff which is plausible which can certainly work in modern science fiction but which isn’t in the same thrilleresque vein as the original. In other words stuff which is as far ahead as the state of today’s concerns as Doomwatch’s concerns were back in the day.

As I say, this isn’t going anywhere, and it’s not the first time this has been done. There was a pilot, Channel 5 acquired the rights to do Doomwatch in the nineties and commissioned a feature length pilot episode which was screened, written by Ian McDonald. It went nowhere. Audience responses were good but they didn’t have the money to make the series. Doomwatch is one of those, it would be really good if they could get it to work again, but nobody ever really does. Also, the original episodes – oh my god, the casual sexism and racism in them! The seventies were very dubious.

GC – Although it’s not something that you have any involvement in, and I know you’re not a particularly filmic person, but one of the first things we ever spoke about was Ringworld which you felt might make adapt well, and a four hour miniseries has been commission by the US SyFy channel, and the writer has experience, but their productions are notoriously v
ariable in quality. What would your hopes be an how would you approach the source material?

CS – I’d probably actually change my mind on making a movie out of that one these days.

GC – I understand that Saturn’s Children is in some ways a Heinlein homage, with Freya being inspired by Friday?

CS – Well, I was under contract to do a space opera, and and it was the centenary of Heinlein’s birth, which got me interested, and there’s this sort of rite of passage for many SF writers of writing a Heinlein homage, and they all write Heinlein juveniles and I decided that’s boring, let’s write a dirty old man late phase Heinlein tribute novel.

Which was the best of his novels from that period? Friday had interesting things to say if he’d just been able to make it cohere properly. He was trying to write about a very damaged young woman, a victim of child abuse so severe that she was convinced she wasn’t actually human, and it’s the story of her coming to terms with her own identity.

GC – And of course Heinlein was part of the golden age of science fiction, Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov. Do you think they knew at the time that they were in a golden age, and with fiction suddenly becoming so accessible and so many great writers who are out now, are we maybe in another golden age, we just don’t realise it?

CS – Possibly. “The golden age” is usually used to refer to the 1930s to the 1950s when the pulp magazines collapsed.

Heinlein was an odd one. He retired from the US navy in the 1930s, a medical discharge, he had a pension, it wasn’t a very good pension, he was living in depression era California, he started writing and discovered he could sell these stories and make money to top up his pension. He was in his early to mid-thirties at the time, so he kept on going, and he was met with very rapid success because he was head and shoulders better than most of the crap hacks who were churning it out.

We tend to forget just how dismally poor the quality of writing was in the golden age for the most part. We remember the good ones, we don’t remember the bad ones, and even then, some of what is still classified as good is just lamentable. I don’t know if you’ve read any early to mid-period Asimov? He was an eye-gougingly bad stylist. He was a much better science writer, which is what he turned to later on.

Foundation is mostly memorable because it was the first time somebody had actually written something that substantial, a couple of hundred thousand words, that was also ripping off historical sources, in this case the decline of the Roman Empire. His Galactic Empire was very much the Roman Empire in disguise, and therefore it had a bit of depth to its background and to what it was trying to say that went beyond what was considered normal in those days, and that’s why it’s remembered. It has been left behind by the state of the art.

Which is not to say we don’t have an awful lot of stuff which is just brainless brain candy these days, but when authors are trying to come up with good ideas, people like Justina Robson, for example, or Liz Williams or Alastair Reynolds or Stephen Baxter, you are seeing a level of ideas… Well, send them back in a time machine to the 1950s and they would have been rock stars. Or unpublishable because their worldview and outlook would not be admissible back then. Consider, for example, the casual racism of John W Campbell.

GC – So how did science fiction change?

CS – I think what we’re living in now is the aftermath of the death of traditional science fiction which died in the 1970s, only nobody really noticed it. The reason it died is that science fiction is the literature of disruption and of human accommodation to change, social and technological change, and we’ve just gone through an amazing period of change in travel speed.

The world in 1800, you could take about a month’s average income, get a ticket on a stagecoach and cross the English home counties, fifty to sixty miles, in two days. Fast forward to 1980, and you could take about a month’s income, buy a ticket and get on a Boeing 747 and fly to the Antipodes in the same period of time. The world of 1980 is the same size in terms of difficulty of travel as the home counties of England in 1800.

During that period from 1900 to 1970, people went from mostly moving by horseback or horsedrawn carriage or at best steamship and steam locomotive to intercontinental jet travel, fast, safe, reliable cars, and spacecraft, and this was the background against which the golden age of SF was occurring, and it was also the era of modernism, the Italian modernists, they were very much about machinery and speed, and science fiction is very much a modernist school of literature which attempts to preconditionally deal with change.

During the 1960s, a first uneasy awareness of the of the difficulty of space travel began to dawn, but it was only in the 1970s and 1980s that it really began to fall home that, yeah, we had sent men to the Moon to play golf there at vast expense, but the space programme appeared to have stalled in human terms. Space stations, space shuttle in low Earth orbit, we haven’t been past low orbit now for forty years, and it turns out that getting any further than the Moon is really, really difficult, and this killed the idea of science fiction as long haul travel high speed voyages into the unknown.

The collapsing distance within the world we’re in made the idea of travel to alien places also seem a bit odd. The alien in science fiction pre-1970 is very much a metaphor for foreigners, people we don’t understand who don’t speak our language. Think of the actors in latex facepaint on Star Trek, yeah? This is almost an embarrassingly naïve position to take these days, where if you find reasonably believable or plausible descriptions of aliens in written SF it’s almost unimaginably difficult to conceive.

The classic example would be Wang’s Carpets by Greg Egan, the short story which was part of his nov
el Diaspora, where they may be conscious, we have no way of ever knowing, they just look like mats of algae to us.

Science fiction always reflects the preoccupations of the author, on the silver screen of the past or the future or whatever. We are regular human beings, we live in the world of everybody else, if there’s a depression we get depressed and worry about the future so we write dystopian slit-your-wrist stuff.

GC – There have been newer trends, cyberpunk, for example.

CS – Cyberpunk, I think, was a first order reaction to globalisation and the age of mass jet travel and to the corporatisation of the world that was become visible in the late seventies/early eighties. Again, if you look past the leather and mirror shades, look at what William Gibson is writing today, these are basically mainstream novels. The world has imploded into cyberpunk rather than cyberpunk being set in the future.

Since then it’s really hard to say whether there’s anything coherent about science fiction as a genre. Large chunks of it have disappeared into pure escapism, there is the whole steampunk thing which aside from the aesthetic – goths discover brown – is about nostalgia for an easier to understand future. Steam engines with exposed machinery rather than microprocessors with no user serviceable parts inside.

We have the boom in urban fantasy which is reclaiming the fantastical for settings we’re familiar with because we’re mostly urban people these days, and then paranormal romance which is about finding a vocabulary for discussing odd sexual yearnings… I think. What we don’t have is a narrative of man’s thrust into space and galactic colonisation and all the rest of it. It just doesn’t convince anybody these days.

I’m also wondering to what extent it was actually an unhealthy obsession, after all the modernists brought us the great modern political movements of communism and fascism and pyramids of skulls. There was even a modernist political movement in America in the 1920s associated with science fiction, it was called technocracy.

It was the idea of rule by technocrats, rule by engineers who had come up with a planned economy where everything would work and the trains would run on time, IQ tests would dictate your position in society, and luckily this dangerous nonsense went out the window during the great depression because otherwise it would have had a chance to build its own pyramid of skulls along with other modernist movements. I think we dodged a bullet there.

GC – We seem to have covered a lot of ground today. Is there anything else we should know about?

CS – I have handed in and it has been accepted for publication next year the fifth Laundry novel, The Rhesus Chart. I’ll give you the first sentence for free.

“Don’t be silly, Bob,” said Mo, “Everybody knows vampires don’t exist.”

The Laundry Files is my series of humorous horror novels about the British secret intelligence agency for defending us from thing from other parts of the universe with far too many tentacles and an appetite for human beings. As you can imagine from that opening line, it’s a vampire novel. And yes, they do sparkle briefly when you shoot them with a basilisk device shortly before they explode.

Coming up behind that, I’m working on this gigantic monolith of another Merchant Princes series.

It’s trying to escape early but I’m not going to let it out, my novella Palimpsest, the Hugo winning time patrol story from 2010, my agent commented at the time that it read like the opening of a novel. The middle of the novel downloaded itself into my brain a couple of weeks ago and I’m fighting to keep it in its box until I’ve got time to write it. That’s going to be a serious far-future epic hard science fiction time travel story. But I don’t get to write that for at least a year.

Apart from that I’m just working on a couple of short stories, notably an interstitial Laundry novella about the lifecycle of unicorns and H P Lovecraft’s deathbed confessions about the true love of his life. Let’s just say you don’t want to meet a unicorn in the Laundry universe. I brainstormed its lifecycle with Peter Watts. I needed a marine parasitologist for it.

GC – We certainly have plenty to look forward to and to keep us busy. Charlie Stross, thank you so much for your time, it has been, it always is, brilliant talking to you.

CS – Thanks, it’s been a pleasure.

Special thanks to Charlie for his time and to Sophie Portas of Pan Macmillan for facilitating the interview

Geek Chocolate have recently reviewed Charlie’s collaboration with Cory Doctorow The Rapture of the Nerds and his new novel Neptune’s Brood, and during the interview he also spoke about the background of Neptune’s Brood and the Merchant Princes series




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