New Directions: Decoding the Imagination of Charles Stross
An Interview by Lou Anders
Charles Stross is a computer programmer and writer living in Edinburgh, Scotland. On his webpage, he describes his salient characteristics in a compact form of Geek code:
He is also a mind-bogglingly talented science fiction and fantasy author. He is currently in the midst of publishing a series of nine tales in Asimov's magazine. Collectively titled Accelerando, these stories chart humanity's coming transhuman evolution across the decades of the 21st Century.
Debuting in the summer of 2001 with "Lobsters," his stories begin in the early 21st Century, at a time when Stross says "extropianism collides with the open source movement." "Lobsters" (nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novelette) introduces us to the permanently wired Manfred Macx, a youthful, self-assured (and self-doubting) cultural purveyor, the world's first "Venture Altruist," out to prove the validity of Win-Win synergistic scenarios while engaging in exotic drugs and sexual experimentation against a near future socio-political backdrop. Fleeing his dominatrix ex-wife, shifting world economies, trading his image on the "reputations market," and inventing extropianistic technologies are all in a day's work. Manfred features in the first three tales, which then skip a generation to pick the story up with his daughter, Amber, for the next trilogy.
While Accelerando makes use of staple cyberpunk concepts like uploads, A.I., and singularities, Stross employs them with a startlingly sharp level of insight into current geo-political trends, and his words are informed by a deeply-embedded knowledge of the current technological landscape. The result is not so much another iteration of post-cyberpunk as it is a brand new and unique speculative voice, charting new territories far in advance of any other writer of hard SF. Stross' talents have already been lauded loudly by the likes of Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick, and it is my personal opinion that he will swiftly emerge as one of the "important" writers of the present decade.
Lou Anders: A bio run in a recent Asimov's points out that you are not a "new Scottish writer," as sometimes described. Well, then, to begin: If not a "new Scottish writer," what are you?
Charles Stross: I'm a bit of an anomaly.
Firstly, I live in Edinburgh, Scotland, but I'm not from Scotland--I was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, have lived in a variety of parts of the UK, and just happen to have settled in Edinburgh for a while. These days there seem to be two cultures--people who stay where their roots are, and those who move around. I'm part of the second.
(If you go back further, to my great-grandparents' generation, you get on the one hand a bunch of Jewish wool merchants who roved all over Eastern Europe but settled briefly in Poland--and on the other side, well, I don't know: my family tended to marry late, and all but one of my grandparents died before I was born. Maybe it's no surprise that I feel a little rootless.)
As for "new" ... I sold my first short story in 1987, to Interzone. From 1987 to 1995 I think I probably sold upwards of a hundred thousand words of short fiction. However, I only broke the surface in the US with my first sale to Asimov's in 2001. Which is why everybody seems to think I'm a new writer.
LA: You've been compared to Bruce Sterling. How do you feel about the comparison and how do you contrast your work with his?
CS: I'm flattered--I'm a great fan of Bruce's work--but I'd like to think I'm a bit different from him. The comparison seems to be coming from those people who've read the Asimov's stories. You'd get a broader picture of what I write from the short story collection Toast (Cosmos Books, out now, available from Amazon.com and elsewhere), my forthcoming novel Festival of Fools, and so on.
Without wanting to pin myself down too tightly, I think Bruce's work is informed by his other activities--he's a damn fine journalist, with a deep and abiding interest in the way environmental changes lead to cultural change in human societies. I'm simply not in that field, at least not to the same extent.
Back when I was young (in the early eighties), a couple of silly career choices led me into some rather strange head-space; the ideas that you need a science degree to write science fiction, and that maybe Neuromancer was an aspirational future, were a lot more appealing at eighteen than at thirty-seven. I outlived my mistakes, but they left me some interesting perspectives on the nature of personal change. In particular, I've been privileged to live and work for most of a decade inside an industry that really did seem as if it was slouching towards a singularity, with exponential change and an outlook that said 15% growth per year is stasis. I think I'm still assimilating some of those implications--and also the realization that core human personality types persist even if you change the environment so far that they're hopelessly ill-adapted.
LA: So how did you come up with the character of Manfred Macx? How soon after envisioning him did you come up with the 9-part story arc of Accelerando?
CS: I wrote "Lobsters" in September 1999 or thereabouts. At the time, I was (a) writing the open source column in Computer Shopper (Brit magazine of that name, tends to run challenging editorial matter along with more or less the same recipe as the Ziff-Davis Computer Shopper), and (b) being senior programmer for a dot-com startup called Datacash. Datacash processes credit card payments via the British credit card system; at one point about 30% of the ecommerce transactions in the UK were flowing through the servers I'd written. Which had a psychotherapist wired into the public interface because I felt I needed the debugging more than the program did. By September my to-do list was eight years deep, Y2K was sneaking up on us, the company was preparing to go public, and I was heading for a nervous breakdown.
(I avoided the nervous breakdown by writing "Lobsters" and quitting to go freelance. The company went public and promptly hit the collapsing bubble--but they're still going and actually profitable. And I got shafted over stock options, as is often the case. But that's someone else's story--probably Douglas Coupland's.)
When you're making a revolution in cyberspace, things look rather different from the way the 1980s cyberpunks wrote it. So after doing "Lobsters," which obviously wasn't the entire story, I thought, "Hang on, why not do cyberpunk again? Only this time, do it the way it really was, with a Vingean singularity thrown in?" Hence the sequence of stories I'm trying to write around Manfred and his posthuman descendants.
(The C*punk tropes are either cliches or reality these days. I mean, when you've led a bunch of six developers trying to defect from one corporation to another ...)
LA: The Accelerando tales are some of the most inspired, imaginative and exciting fiction I've read in the past year. They are also information-dense beyond even Greg Egan's work. Practically every sentence references some cutting edge technology or development in genetic engineering, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, social theory, etc. What's entailed in writing one of these?
CS: Extreme brain strain.
I'm probably not giving anything away if I mention that, between starting story #6 and finishing it, I wrote a 185,000 word alternate history novel--just by way of avoiding having to face up to the hard work.
I'm immersed in the computing/web field because that's what I spent the past decade working in, after a false start as a pharmacist. (I still have a certificate that says I'm allowed to keep heroin and cocaine in the course of my lawful business!) However, I also have enough of a background in biochemistry and pharmacology to have a vague idea what's happening in those fields, as well. And I'm a bit of an information junkie: I read widely for sense-of-wonder, and don't confine myself to the SF field to get the kick. If you follow coverage in non-technical science magazines like New Scientist or Scientific American you can pick up interesting leads on stuff that is attracting a current-day buzz; some of this stuff has implications far beyond what makes it into those magazines, implications that go all the way into paradigm-shift this-is-the-new-revolution territory.
We seem these days to be seeing new ground-breaking theoretical developments at a rate of one every six months to a year: breakthroughs on the same order as general relativity or quantum theory. (You don't see such breakthroughs routinely in physics, which is a relatively mature field, but if you look into the biological sciences equivalent breakthroughs appear to be coming thick and fast.)
At the same time, social change is running far faster than in previous centuries. There are already signs that we're moving into the post-AIDS generation--HIV in the developed world is an expensive but treatable disease, like cancer, rather than an automatic death sentence, and over the next decade or two this is going to have interesting social consequences. So is the religious-conservative backlash. (I've already seen discussions by conservative medical ethicists who suggest that attempts at finding medical treatments for the collection of cumulative metabolic malfunctions known as "old age" should be banned, on the grounds that indefinite prolongation of youth increases the time before someone gets to meet their maker. There seems to be a crisis of confidence in western conservativism that runs so deep that many conservatives feel driven to seek new ideological and philosophical justifications for opposing change.)
Then there's politics. Politics is about the art of building a consensus opinion on how to run society. Politics is also challenged by the pace of change and--frighteningly, to me--most of our politicians are dinosaurs. Tony Blair can't even type, much less use a computer to send and receive his own email; when most of the occupants of the US Senate and Congress are lawyers, you'll get legislation put forward that only a lawyer could love. (Such as the current nightmare over copy prevention, sponsored by the Senator for Disney, "Fritz" Hollings, which to implement effectively would require a ban on universal Turing machines.)
But, to get back to the question ...
Each of these stories is a pile of brightly-coloured bricks balanced on top of a tottering pile. When I set out to write another story I grab a bunch of bricks and ram them together, trying to work out how they fit. Most of them are derived from existing developments that seem to make sense. I think we can take an eventual mature nanotechnology as a given by the late 21st century: I also think we'll see early commercial applications within a decade of today. Religious conservatives and Roger Penrose aside, I see no real practical stumbling blocks to the idea of interfacing human brains (and the software running on them) directly to computing machinery. Those two developments alone will dwarf everything else that has happened to the human species since 12,000 BC (and the development of agriculture). I'd also predict that in the next couple of decades we'll see at least one emergent technology that is at least as important again. Working A.I. is a major possibility, and its effects would be earth-shattering (as Vernor Vinge pointed out in his seminal essay on the Singularity). Another possibility is the weird artificial atom stuff that Wil McCarthy is currently writing about. And then there's quantum teleportation, atom lasers generated from Bose-Einstein condensates (think about holography with atoms instead of photons!), and so on.
But--and this is a key insight--the people dealing with these new technologies will still be derived from the human stock we're familiar with today. They may be augmented, uploaded, or enhanced, and they may have very alien attitudes, but they're still going to be recognizably human.
LA: Because of the aforementioned "information density" of the prose, the Accelerando tales are something of a challenging read. Who is your core audience? (I suspect they are a mix of computer programmers, genetic engineers, avid devourers of Wired magazine, and sentient crustaceans.) And are you bothered by the fact that you may be writing for a very narrow margin of speculative fiction readers who can actually keep up?
CS: I wrote "Lobsters" and showed it to a friend. He said "that's really cool, but you'll never sell it--the audience would have to overdose on Slashdot for six months before they got it." He was completely right--he just underestimated the number of people out there who overdose on Slashdot!
Frankly, I don't care if the Accelerando stories have a limited audience. I'm writing them to explore a highly experimental, cutting-edge area that nobody else seems to be doing much in. But they're not the only things I write, and some of the other stuff has probably got a broader appeal. (It's just that the other stuff is novel length and isn't on sale via Amazon.com yet.)
LA: So how are these stories being received?
CS: It's a little hard for me to tell--Asimov's has about the same readership in the UK that Interzone has in the US, which is to say, very small--but I haven't had anyone come up to me and tell me that they suck. Which is a small victory.
LA: I find it hysterical that you cast the communists and the IRS as the last hard-line defenders of capitalism. Let's talk about the political landscape in which these tales begin. And do you really see the old guard approaching obsolescence in such a short scale of time?
CS: It's already happened!
Lenin's flavour of State Marxism (which should not be confused with real communism, any more than today's system should be conflated with a libertarian, hands-off, truly free free market system) was predicated on the need to industrialise the Russian Empire and then run an industrial-age economy. It addressed precisely the same top-down managerial concerns as the western system during the early years of the 20th century, and as late as the mid-1960s it could be argued that central planning was more efficient and less wasteful than the market economy.
But a market economy is essentially a genetic algorithm for solving resource allocation problems, and while the Soviets were grappling with abacuses and five year plans, the western economies were automating their genetic algorithms and adding all sorts of weird feedback loops in the form of derivatives and options trades. And the western economies were also moving into a new, post-industrial phase. Efficiency killed off the first industrial revolution's economy, so that from having 50% of the population working in factories, we have to find service industry jobs for them. And this change happened so damned fast that the GOSPLAN five year feedback cycle was stuffed. The big corporate-managerial dinosaurs were mobbed and eaten alive by fast-moving mammals and bloodthirsty corporate raiders
Note that while a real-time market system is far more efficient at allocating resources than a central planning system with a slow feedback loop, it is not the most efficient possible resource allocation tool. Actually, we don't even know if a most-efficient-possible solution is practical--it's one of a sub-class of problems in computer science that are known as NP-incomplete, and there's a chance that a better solution will come along at some point.
Now, as to the political old guard approaching obsolescence, for a microcosmic view of what I'm talking about, look at the music and film industries. I could write a book--or at least a chapter--describing the insanities of the studio system, but, in a nutshell, the situation is that big music or movie distributors find it easier to distribute a homogeneous product. It's cheaper to sell a billion copies of one record than a million copies each of a thousand discs. So they're squeezing the variety, thinking that they're selling a physical product--but they're not: they're trying to sell ideas. There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the term "intellectual property," because information isn't transferred between brains: it's copied. The music and film industries are finally waking up to the fact that as they squeeze their product range down, people lose interest in the range and look outside it for independent productions. So they're panicking, blaming the new business model, fighting a zero-sum rear-guard action, and trying to ban progress.
They may succeed. If so, I fear we're doomed to live in a world not unlike that of Rebecca Ore's Outlaw School (Tor, 2000). And I really don't want to go there.
LA: Tell me a little bit more about "extropianism colliding with the open source movement".
CS: Extropianism is a fascinating movement. It's the idea that the human condition is changeable--and for the better. Smart drugs, life prolongation, mind uploading, personality augmentation, improvement. I'd call it Panglossian, except that Dr Pangloss's name has become a dirty word. All too many people who look at the future do so with dismal, malthusian expectations, and the key feature of extropianism (once you strip out the tendency for American Libertarians to jump on the boat) seems to be techno-optimism.
The open source movement is also fascinating, but unlike the extropians, it's one with muscle in the real world--enough muscle that Bill Gates and the music and film industries are scared witless by it. Free software (open source is merely the commercially-correct politically sanitized version of the term) addresses the key contradiction I mentioned earlier in the concept of "intellectual property"--it's free as in speech, not free as in beer. You can sell free software: the only thing you can't do with it is prevent people from copying it.
I think if legislators don't crush it the free software movement--which, incidentally, has its roots in the culture of scientific research and information sharing--will be one of the big industrial drivers of the next century. Forget software for a moment and think in terms of mature nanotechnology or biotechnology. Both these fields are distinguished from previous technologies in that they will work with self-replicating systems that can be programmed to produce end products. One can see the free software movement as a precusor for a "free hardware" or "free wetware" movement--one that will provide free libraries of designs for biological or nanotechnological products that replicators can be programmed to churn out. Just as I don't spend money on email clients or text editors when there are really good free ones available, why would I (for example) spend money on a sofa when there's a really good free template for one available on the web and I can grow it myself in my ACME Home Factory(TM)? Or even grow a GNU Free Factory in it, and stop paying ACME royalties?
The combination of techno-optimism and self-replicating technologies and free software for controlling those technologies is going to be explosive. Sometimes literally so.
LA: You skip forward in time considerably with story number four, which picks up with Manfred's daughter Amber. At first I was disappointed to see Macx go, but now I'm falling in love with her. Why the generational jump and will we do this again in part three? Any chance dad (or a part of him) will make a reappearance?
CS: I wrote "Lobsters" as a standalone, then realised it was screaming for a sequel. By the time I was halfway into "Troubadour" I had a tentative map of what lay ahead. Manfred exited with story #3 because he was burned out by the rate of change. He may reappear in subsequent stories but he's no longer the flag-carrier for progress--he's granddad.
LA: Manfred's artificial cat, Aineko, may be my favorite character, and I was very glad to find that she has made the transition from the first trilogy of tales to Part Two. Am I right in assuming that Aineko may be serving the function of the robotic "window character" in your trilogy that C3PO and R2D2 serve in another famous series of trilogies?
CS: Yes. The description is, "a series of nine stories, each set an average of 5-10 years apart, covering three generations of a dysfunctional family as it makes its way through the singularity - told from the point of view of the family cat".
Note also that Aineko gets smarter with each story and every upgrade. You can pin-point the singularity as the time at which Aineko hits human-equivalent smarts :)
LA: In story # 6, "Nightfall", Aineko does a stint as the chesire cat. Why is it that Alice in Wonderland is so heavily mined in cyberpunk? It's almost the core archetype of virtual reality.
CS: Lewis Carroll was heavily into mathematics: a lot of his core ideas draw on some rather interesting insights he had, and his style appeals to the common cultural background of the hacker community. (Look at where the convention of the READ.ME file comes from, for example! Or check the Jargon File/New Hacker's Dictionary entries, or look at Martin Gardner's footnotes to The Annotated Alice.)
Really, if you could build a time machine and bring one Victorian-era person forward in time to our present day, Carroll strikes me as being the one most likely to take everything nonchalantly in his stride.
LA: Let's talk about your choice to write across the singularity. Vernor Vinge says that you CAN'T know what occurs on the other side, yet you suggest at one point that the singularity has already begun--and date it from the first conception of the Internet! What problems does writing about the singularity present? And (and here's the difficult one) do you think the singularity has become enough of a part of the dialogue that anything not billing itself as fantasy must take it into account to have any relevance?
CS: Actually, for me the pivotal scene was the one in the bar, with five people arguing about when the singularity happened. One placed it in 1969 (when the first IMP sent a "ping" packet to the second IMP, and it promptly crashed). Another plumped for 2030 (human-equivalent A.I.), one went for 2018 (nanotech replicator) and a third went for the steam engine.
Really, we have had several singularities. The first, some time between 40,000BC and 250,000BC, was the development of a sufficiently complex semantic engine in our brain to make complex grammatical statements possible. Without that, we wouldn't be human--we'd just be very smart apes.
A second singularity occurred around 12,000BC. That was the development of agriculture. Once you've discovered agriculture, you can support far more people on a given land area than you can as hunter-gatherers. Sure there are drawbacks--you have to work a lot harder, you get diseases from your domesticated animals, and so on--but you outnumber the hunter-gatherers a hundred to one, and it's a one-way phase transition: going back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is only possible if you accept a 90-98% population reduction. On the other hand an agricultural culture can produce the surpluses necessary to support cities and organizational structures larger than a village, with all that this entails.
I'm not certain where to point the finger, but I'm pretty certain at least one more singularity occurred between 1600 and 1900. Certainly something big changed in the structure of human civilizations, which went from mostly-static to very rapidly, dynamically changing. Even if the root cause wasn't a cultural change (such as the 18th century Enlightenment) or a legal change (such as the 17th century invention of the limited liability company) or a technological change (such as the 18th/19th century adoption of the steam engine) something happened that pushed over the ant heaps and set us all scurrying around the globe, and those countries that tried to ignore it got stomped on (e.g. late imperial China, the Ottoman Empire) by those that embraced it (Japan, Britain, Germany, the USA).
Unlike Vinge, I do not believe it is impossible to write about what happens after the singularity--however, I think it depends which singularity you pick, and how thoroughly your extrapolation pursues second-order effects.
LA: So, as one of your characters puts it, are you a singularitarian yourself?
CS: I'm not 100% sure I believe in the singularity. Certainly I don't believe in the rapture of the nerds--the idea of a single point at which everything changes and all will be right thereafter. New technologies slow down radically after a period of rapid change during their assimilation. However, I can see a series of overlapping sigmoid curves that might resemble an ongoing hyperbolic curve if you superimpose them on one another, each segment representing the period of maximum change as a new technology appears.
I've lately been trying to project possible futures that don't include any kind of singularity, be it a minor one (like the steam engine) or a massive one (strongly superhuman A.I.s that are to us as we are to cats and dogs). Mostly they require either a malthusian collapse, or repressive legislative/political forces. So, to that extent, any SF that doesn't try to address the issue is either a dystopia or a fantasy. (Not that the converse holds true--SF that discusses the singularity is not automatically utopian or hard-SF.)
LA: Do you see real-life technologies, in our lifetimes, which approximate something like what you and other SF writers envision?
CS: I believe that now, in 2002, we live in a world that would be utterly unpredictable from the perspective of 1902. It's not the macroscopic changes that count (the USA has replaced the UK almost perfectly in the political/military arena), but the minutiae of daily life, and stuff that gets hidden in the cracks.
In 1902, you would face a 30% chance of dying of a bacterial disease. Today (with the possible exception of multidrug-resistant TB) that isn't an issue.
You would almost certainly live without electricity, and an evening's entertainment would involve a piano and a sing-along, or maybe a session at the pub or saloon bar.
Social flexibility is vastly greater today, but then, it has to be: the world today is only 48 hours in diameter (in travel time), about the size of the English home counties in 1802, or the states of New England in 1902. We have had to learn to live shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are really strange, and this entails learning when to ignore their really strange habits. (Many of today's problems seem to stem from insular, intolerant cultures that are suddenly unable to ignore the cheek-by-jowl nature of the information age and take violent exception to being forced to deal with it.)
The stuff I write about and the tools I use to do it were beyond the imagination of Verne or Wells, because those guys thought of industrialistion in terms of big machines with lots of moving parts, rather than information.
Probably by this time in the next century the information age will seem laughably quaint, the first decade one with the digital dark ages (of proprietary file formats and repressive copyright laws that have caused massive bit-rot to deprive future generations of any non-first-hand knowledge of the past).
I don't know whether you'd call that a singularity, though.
LA: For me, one of the most intriguing concepts you introduced in Accelerando was when you suggested that the Fermi Paradox may be explained by the problem of bandwidth. I'm also amazed by the concept of a transhuman ecology - with a whole hierarchy of scavenging intelligences preying on the newcomers by passing themselves off as the top of the ladder. I'm not aware of a precedent for this, but I think it's truly inspired and somewhat frightening. How the hell did you come up with it?
CS: An acquaintance of mine breeds companies for a living.
I'm not kidding. He has a nice little business that sells shell companies with all their paperwork via the back page of Private Eye.
To spawn a new company, he fills out the paperwork and three of his tame companies each occupy a niche as company secretary, company treasurer, and company chair-thing. When it's time to sell the new company into bondage, the chair-being "resigns" and the other companies elect the purchaser to the chair and issue shares.
Ownership of a company approximates to the paper-based equivalent of owning an Internet domain.
Now, a company has a constitution--a set of rules that govern its behaviour. About the only meta-rules governing what goes into this are (a) that they've got to be legal (you can't have a company that exists for the purpose of murdering people), and (b) that the lawyers can ensure the company is running in compliance with its rules. Why not embed a LISP or Scheme interpreter in the rules and instruct the company to maintain state information and accept instructions from its directors? Who might be other companies? Why not load OpenCYC or some other expert system into your company? Why not turn a viable sentient AI into a company in order to give it a legal identity and legal person-hood (so that it can own property and can't legally be killed without going through certain steps)?
The ecology thing becomes clear when you get someone with a background in the biological sciences to take a look at economics. Some companies in an information economy feed on the ideas of the humans who comprise their cells. Other companies mediate information flow between the producers and yet more, who make money by selling information to end-purchasers. Big companies eat little companies, and other cliches of the market age. It's a jungle out there, and once we get companies that are wholly self-directed some of them will live by the lore (or law) of the jungle.
(This is one reason why maybe market economies are not that good an idea in the long term.)
LA: Care to give us any spoilers about Part Three? What timeframe it occurs in or who the central character will be?
CS: All I can say is that the sequence ends before the 21st Century does, and Aineko features in it.
LA: Let's talk about your other fiction. What else are you working on?
CS: I've got two novels in varying stages right now. The first, Festival of Fools, is due out from Big Engine in the UK in early 2003 (US publication to be decided--you'll have to ask me again in a month or two [Editor's note: Ace will publish the US editions of this and another Charles Stross novel]). Festival of Fools is a post-singularity space opera, set about five centuries hence, and it's a space opera which doesn't try to avoid the essential concept that faster-than-light travel implies causality violation. In fact, causality violation is at the root of the singularity in this universe (being the technique the vastly-superhuman and weakly godlike entity calling itself the Eschaton uses to deal with NP-complete problems and prevent time travellers preventing the singularity that spawned it--yes, it gets very hairy, very fast). Festival of Fools is basically a novel about culture shock on a planetary scale, and introduces a universe and some characters I intend to have fun with in a future novel.
The second novel, The Atrocity Archive, is currently being serialized in the Scottish SF magazine Spectrum SF. It's a spy thriller--a British spy thriller in the tradition of Len Deighton. However, it's the sort of Len Deighton novel that Neal Stephenson might have written to an outline by H. P. Lovecraft. The many-angled ones live at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set, and The Laundry exists to protect the British Isles from the scum of the multiverse. Our hero, Bob, is a slashdot-reading hacker-geek who's fallen into spook-land and can't get out--he's on a voyage to the heart of darkness, and his vessel is a British government agency that is in the process of becoming the world's first ISO-9000 quality-assured secret intelligence service.
"A Colder War" (available elsewhere on this site) was a dry run for The Atrocity Archive--but this is a lot funnier.
There's a third novel, which I can't tell you much about because it's supposed to be pseudonymous and it's in a different genre. (Just keep your eyes open for a fat alternate history novel called A Family Trade.)
LA: Who are your influences? And are there any under-recognized writers you'd like to point our readers to?
CS: I'm a child of the cyberpunk age. I work on the net, I sleep on a Japanese bed bought from a Scandinavian multinational, I've done the dot-com thing, and I keep waking up in strange cities all over Europe. (This stuff has assimilated into my life so seamlessly that you might mistake William Gibson for a predictive genius if you didn't know that he cribbed it all from The Face!) SF often reflects our current pre-occupations on the magic mirror of the imaginary future, and cyberpunk was a reflection on the 1980s and the rise of the information age.
I'd have to rate Bruce Sterling as a major influence on me. Certainly the Accelerando stories are an attempt to do for cyberpunk what Bruce said (pseudonymously, writing as "Vincent Omniaveritas" in his zine Cheap Truth) was the goal of Schismatrix and his mechanist/shaper stories--"to take the thin beer of space opera and distill it into a heady moonshine". I want to distill cyberpunk, strip off the fashion accessories (and the street punks who were, as John Shirley said, too dumb to program their way out of a microwave oven), and drag it kicking and screaming into the next generation.
The only question is whether I'll succeed before Jon Courtney Grimwood beats me to it. I don't know if he's published in the US, but that guy is awesome: he's maturing into the kind of writer that Neal Stephenson might have been if he had gotten a handle on plotting and suppressed his self-indulgent tendencies. If you liked George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails and its sequels, beg borrow or steal a copy of Pashazade--Grimwood does it better.
I'd also like to point the accusing finger of admiration at Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks--with the reservation that any rumours that they're part of some sort of Scottish movement and I'm a hanger-on are simply wrong.
I also have an appetite for junk SF and fantasy, and spy thrillers, and alternate history. The Atrocity Archive is a homage to Len Deighton; its projected sequels (The Jennifer Library and The Nightmare Stacks) will do the same job for Ian Fleming and that most important and overlooked author, Christopher Hodder-Williams (who invented the modern technothriller in the mid-1950s). Hell, that pseudonymous alternate history novel I mentioned earlier was inspired by something Roger Zelazny did--something very ambitious but ultimately an imaginative failure.
LA: Okay, broad question. Where do you see SF as a genre going in the next decade? What is an SF writer's response to be now that we live in an age of cloning, robotics, life on Mars, emerging A.I.?
CS: From the top: I don't see myself as part of any movement, although I might end up being coopted by one if one exists. But I don't think one does, and it's also damned dangerous to dabble in that kind of thing for marketing purposes. More to the point, SF writers tend to take what they see and project it on the future. That being the case, when new things come into view the future they project may show startling similarities and look different from whatever was in sight before.
As far as the age of cloning, robotics, and life on Mars goes, I don't think it signified--any more than H. G. Wells living into the age of the war in the air signified. SF writers have been outliving their prognostications for decades. That doesn't make things any less interesting, because the core study of any branch of fiction is people.
LOU ANDERS is an editor, author, and journalist. In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of Bookface.com, an Internet company which provided books and short stories for free online reading, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He has published over 500 articles in such magazines as Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and the editor of the anthologies Outside the Box (Wildside Press, 2001) and the forthcoming Live Without a Net (Roc, summer 2003). Currently, he is at work on two more anthologies and a novel.
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