CHARLES STROSS IN EXTROPIA
Courtesy of Delos Books at
Sophrosyne’s Special Salon,
June 21, 2008
Salon Room, Central Nexus in Extropia Core, Second Life
Sophrosyne Stenvaag: Welcome to Extropia, a future-oriented community in Second Life, with frequent events such as these.
Find us on the web at http://extropiacore.net, along with a full events calendar, or click the square signs at the back of the room to be added to our in-world events notice group
Charlie (Autopope Writer in SL) is here today courtesy of Eliver Delphin of Delos Books – Eliver – over to you!
Eliver Delphin: Thank you Sophrosyne
It’s great to be here in Extropia, it’s a fantastic venue for such an event
I welcome everybody on behalf of our publishing house, Delos Books and Charles, of course, who was so kind to accept our invitation to Second Life 🙂
Autopope Writer: Thanks for inviting me!
Eliver Delphin: And Sophrosyne, thank you for sharing your fantastic audience with us
Sophrosyne Stenvaag: Thank you, and welcome, all of you!
Autopope Writer: Back in the early 1990s i worked for a multinational and we have these regular teleconference sessions — multiple sites in different time zones on speakerphones.
So the technophiles got in an early ISDN2-borne video teleconferencing rig.
And you know something? It was *terrible*! You couldn’t pick your nose or pull horrid faces at
the idiots on the other end of the line any more. Or go to sleep while they were droning on.
Dreadful, I say!
Sophrosyne Stenvaag: OTOH, you can do this meeting in your jammies…. 🙂
Autopope Writer: Doing this meeting in your jammies is part of the problem. Another part: First Life just intervened a moment ago in the shape of one of my cats, who’s just left a pungent comment in the litter tray outside my office door. If I’d flown to Italy instead, dealing with it would be the cat-sitter’s problem, not mine!
No, I remain unconvinced by teleconferencing … which is why I’m not here tonight, right?
Sophrosyne Stenvaag: Charlie, we have you here at an interesting time –
Halting State is up for a Hugo, and Saturn’s Chlidren is about to release – which one is on your mind more these days, or are you off to something new already?
Autopope Writer: The non-obvious thing about this job — writing — is that by the time a book comes out in hardback, you’ve already written the next one; the production pipeline is literally years long …
I’m currently working on the next two MERCHANT PRINCES books, and a new hard SF novella for my short story collection next year, “Palipmsest”.
After that — early next year — I’m going to start on the sequel to HALTING STATE.
But the thing is, I finished writing HALTING STATE around November 2006, and SATURN’S CHILDREN in September 07. So I’m always moving on.
NB: if HALTING STATE was about MMOs, the sequel, ‘419’ is about spam.
The elevator pitch is:
“it’s 2023. The war on spam is over; spam won. And now the Russian Business Network want a seat on the UN security council…”
Autopope Writer: About switching genres; if anything that’s an ANTI-marketing gambit. Publishers don’t really like it — they find it much easier to sell books to their sales force and the bookshops if they can say “it’s just like the last one, only better”.
My problem is that I get bored easily. Writing the same book over and over again? That would get old fast. It pays well, but there’s more to life than that.
And besides, HALTING STATE sold really well — but if I’d gone on writing books like SINGULARITY SKY I’d never have done in that direction, would I? Experimentation: it’s the only way to make headway and do something really new.
Sophrosyne Stenvaag: On the other hand, I’d imagine nothing is harder than writing near-term SF –
Autopope Writer: Writing near-term SF is *hard*. It used to look as if the future was predictable — more of the same, only with flying cars.
But everything went nonlinear about 30 years ago, 40 years ago.
Anyway, though, about the near-future thing: you can open any newspaper and see dozens of science fictional weirdnesses EVERY DAY. Trying to second guess this thing? That’s hard!
(Flying cars: you may want a flying car, but you DON’T want your neighbour’s 16 year old son to get his hands on his dad’s flying car and a six pack of beer. Right? The default failure mode for a flying car is rather terminal …)
For better or worse, we live in a complex society with a myriad of subcultures cheek-by-jowl. We have to be able to selectively turn a blind eye to stuff they do which might offend us — and we expect them to return the courtesy. Civilization lacks the elbow room it used to have. On the other hand, in some ways it’s a lot more interesting.
CyFishy Traveler: I note by your profile that you’ve been in SL for nearly a year . . . how much time have you spent in SL and what have you done in/with it?
Autopope Writer: My total time in SL is probably half a dozen hours and I haven’t done *anything* except wander around and gawp and the natives and the scenery. If I surrendered I’d forget to eat, never mind writing books …
isenhand Nightfire: Autopope, form what havwe read of your stuff u have a very transhumanist feel tou your writings. R u writing for transhunmnists or d u have a wider sci fi audiance in mind (assumeing they r not the same thing)?
Ah, transhumanism … no, I’m not writing for transhumanists. I’m writing for geeks. (Let me unpack that …)
Back in the 1920s to 1970s, SF was about increases in delta-V — acceleration, speed, travel. It mimicked the modernist obsession with transportation and communication. But in the 1970s we hit an energetic wall — we couldn’t go any faster.
Meanwhile, the IT revolution was under way. Moore’s law gave us a different exponential/sigmoid progress from that of aerospace.
But the older SF writers were still doing the space exploration shtick.
Meanwhile, the sort of kids who were interested in the hard sciences stopped going into aerospace engineering and grew up to become UNIX sysadmins. And most of the older SF writers haven’t noticed this change in their new readership intake and aren’t writing for them.
Neal Stephenson noticed. Vernor noticed. *I* noticed. And that’s why I’m writing a different type of SF — for a type of SF reader whose metric for analysing progress is different.
(Actually, “The high Frontier – redux” was an infodump side-effect of my research for SATURN’S CHILDREN. Which, beside being a Heinlein tribute novel, also attempted to get the space travel and space colonization *right*.)
Space travel as history — probably the first SF writer to get that was J. G. Ballard, and aside from being a huge influence on William Gibson, most people didn’t understand what he was getting at.
On “Saturn’s Children”, saying it’s a Heinlein pastiche only goes half way … Most SF writers who do Heinlein try to do his 1950s juveniles. I decided that was boring, and I was going to do a late-period Heinlein instead.
Space colonization works just fine, as long as you throw away the human beings. Tinned apes in vacuum? You just know it’s going to end in tears.
Davidorban Agnon: 1. SF shapes reality, it always has. Some writers like William Gibson feel that reality caught up with them, and recognize it by writing with contemporary themes. Others, like Cory Doctorow have a blast as their ideas become reality, like web based whuffie systems, or just recently ParanoidLinux out of Little Brother. What is your position? How is your prose shaping reality?
Autopope Writer: I have no idea how my prose is shaping reality. Some of it … if “The Atrocity Archives” is shaping reality, I want out of this universe!
Actually, I know for a fact that Halting State has had some impact in odd places. When you get invitations to attend think tank weekends on Pentagon letterhead, this is a bit of a giveaway.
Sophrosyne Stenvaag: especially *after* the DoS attack on Estonia, I imagine!
Autopope Writer: Yes indeed. I was a bit worried for a while after I handed in the manusript of HALTING STATE (in September 2006) — bits of it kept coming true!
Davidorban Agnon: Second question, then… 2. I have been invited to the Order Of Galactic Engineers. It looks a lot of fun, but I am worried that too many people will misunderstand it, taking spirituality for religion, taking maximal aims for theology. I am a missionary atheist, and don’t want my message diluted by their approach. You looked at it ten days ago too, but didn’t pronounce a judgement yet. Are you ready to do so now?
Autopope Writer: On the Order of Galactic Engineers: I will confess that, while I may sometimes explore other possibilities in my fiction, I am a fundamentalist materialist atheist and there isn’t a spiritual bone in my body. I distrust spiritualism. Deeply.
Davidorban Agnon: What about emotions?
Autopope Writer: It’s too easily manipulated for evil ends by cynical parties. Emotion’s fine — just as long as you keep your rational mind in the driving seat.
Also? I live in a country where 60% of the population do *not* believe in God, much less Satan, much less invisible pink unicorns. Visiting the USA is … weird.
Ireland is weird to visit, too. 20 years ago it was a Catholic theocracy. Today, the church has pretty much imploded as a social influence.
Graph Weymann: To borrow a phrase: how do you *want* your fiction to shape reality? That is, what have you written about that you’d like to see people attempting to implement?
Autopope Writer: There are a bunch of things I’ve written about that I’d like to see people implement. Whether they’re — sadly — physically possible? That’s another matter.
Actually, here’s what I want: the goggles from HALTING STATE. (I think I described them in a couple of the talks I gave last year that are online on google video and elsewhere.)
Extropia DaSilva: In ‘Robot’ Hans Moravec sees a future in which robots evolve, eat the solar system and drive humans out if it. Is it fair to say that Accelerando takes his ideas and adds a generational story to it?
Autopope Writer: Accelerando was, indeed, inspired by a lot of Hans Moravec’s ideas. And stuff that was current on the Extropians mailing list circa 1990-94. (That’s where I met Ken MacLeod, incidentally.)
Extropia DaSilva: And is Wunch a spoonerism for Wunch of Bankers?
Autopope Writer: Wunch is indeed a spoonerism; the collective plural for Bankers is a Wunch. (As in: A wunch of bankers, a bunch of w…
IntLibber Brautigan: there is an issue we have dealt with in SL between individuals having power to do things to others while hiding behind anonymity, however other problems where individuals transparency about themselves is used to harass and even oppress them. where do you see the balance between privacy freedom vs power necessitating transparency as the world gets more virtual and individuals as well as groups gain more
technological power to harm and oppress?
And on a different note, where do you see private space travel going in the next half century?
Autopope Writer: The 5 minute interrupt was triggered by a weissbier. (It’s Saturday night here. I’d normally be at the pub. As I can’t do this at the pub, though, I thought I’d have a beer…)
The privacy/autonomy/freedom thing is a major sore point for me right now. I live in the UK, which (some of you might be aware of this) has a government right now who never saw a privacy-infringing or onerous law they didn’t want to pass.
David Brin’s book “The Transparent Society” proposed that a fair information society would be one where the surveillance was effectively flat, peer-to-peer, citizens watching government as well as government watching citizens. Right now we’ve got the opposite: we’re rushing towards a very scary kind of surveillance state.
The political justifications are twofold: “trust us, we’ve got your best interests at heart”, and “if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to fear”. Neither of which hold up to examination, even if you credit the current generation of legislators with good intentions. (How much hold do they have on their successor’s actions?)
For me, the scariest possible conspiracy theory is that the politicians really *are* honestly doing their best to protect us, and what they’re protecting us from is so ghastly that the end justifies the means. Ick. (See also THE CONCRETE JUNGLE).
IntLibber Brautigan: ok how about your projections for private space travel in the next 50 years?
Autopope Writer: Private space travel in the next 50 years will not happen as long as we have a major security state or scares over terrorism, because –
Compare the kinetic energy payload of a hijacked Boeing 767 with that of a hijacked zillionaire’s private space shuttle. The spacecraft makes the 767 look like a cessna in terms of destructive potential.
We have a technical term for private space launchers. We call them ICBMs.
A friend of mine once got to witness an RV impact from a Trident test. No nuke, just a sandbag in the nose cone. The ground shook — two miles from the impact!
Starsky Silverstar: Well, I’m going to ask a very everyday life low tech question 🙂 Scotland… a small country with the highest density of major sf writers. It’s a coincidence? Something in the air? In the beer?
Autopope Writer: I don’t think Scotland’s got that huge a population of SF writers, actually; there are 5 million folks here, and English is the local language (which helps — it gives us access to the US market). Scotland has been traditionally highly literate, too, all the way back to when it was a Presbyterian theocracy. The clergy were big on teaching people to read, so they could read the Bible. The result is a population who read and write.
On the other hand, there is something happening here this decade. I think it’s partly down to the optimism of living in the early days of a new nation (because as likely as not, Scottish indpeendence will follow the Conservative election victory of 2010 …)
I sometimes hit the pub with Ken. Iain, less often (he’s across a wide body of water), and Richard Morgan lives in Glasgow, which is a pain to get to from here. The proposal for an Edinburgh/Glasgow maglev monorail got spiked last year 😦
One interesting side-effect of theocracies is that after a while the devout leaders tend to believe that their subjects believe the religion as strongly as they do. And in the case of Scotland, it was a very dour strain of Presbyterianism that held reading the bible for ones’ self as a high calling. It sowed the seeds of its own demise in the shape of the Scottish Enlightenment in the early 18th century.
Court Goodman: hi, thanks for taking my question. How much time do you think we have left before a full-blown, severly-disruptive cyberwar? With India accusing China of infiltrating their IT networks with botnet activity, the US Air Force pondering of creating their own with the massive amounts of older systems they have, the Estonian attack, the first confirmed death-by-system-error, Cyberwar predictions in modern scifi seems to converge with the news more often and more rapidly.
Autopope Writer: Cyberwar: I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that we’ve had one running quietly for five years now. My understanding is that back in 2000 someone installed password sniffers on the backbone routers at MAE-EAST. And today antipope.org (my domain) gets 20-35,000 spams a day. How do I know they’re not actually steganographically encoded command packets from a botnet?
… But instead of planning the ultimate mass murder spree, I merely write novels about it.
People buy stuff advertised in spam because, sadly, in aggregate, people are made out of s-t-u-p-i-d
Autopope Writer: Films: probably not any time soon. (Selling movie rights and seeing a major blockbuster movie production is the SF author’s equivalent of winning the lottery.)
Autopope Writer: I fear that the only way to really defeat spam is to adopt True Communism tomorrow, Comrades. Remove the profit motive and you remove the motive for commercial spam!
Autopope Writer: On films again: the ideal length of a work of fiction that is to be turned into a movie is the novella (call it 75-125 pages in written form). Novels are too long; you’ve got to chop stuff out of it.
Netwurker Twin: Howdy all. Autopope, Would u mind explaining how u see the novel [form] as relevant in terms of contemporary entertainment? Especially with current emergent forms essentially refashioning entertainment/leisure/recreational pursuits [thinking: web 2.0 stuff here – geohashing, flashmobs, lolcats etc;)]?
Autopope Writer: An author’s control over their baby once they’ve sold the movie rights is approximately zero (unless they’re J. K. Rowling, and famous and rich enough to buy a stake in the production — only costs a few million dollars). As for the current role of the novel — it’s still the #1 medium in which you can get paid enough money to make a living. As and when other formats become viable, you can expect to see me there — but right now, 95% of all novels sold are still sold on dead tree; the e-book is as much a tomorrow thing as the flying car and the food pill, for most people.
The short story markets imploded for commercial/distribution reasons around 1956, and ever since then it’s been impossible to make a living selling them. The per-word rate you get for a novel is around ten times higher, and you get to sell 20x as many words per unit, too.
Novels lengths are dictated by commercial criteria — cost of distribution, cost of paper and ink, binding technology. It’s actually pretty ugly when you get to look at the seamy underbelly of the publishing industry! CyFishy pegged it. The short story markets are advertising and experimentation venues for writers, not real markets.
Novels are around 100K words because they used (in the US) to be distributed in paperback form via wholesalers who also stocked groceries. During the 1970s-1990s the publishers wanted to up their cover prices. The grocery distributors said “you can’t do that unless the product weighs more.” (No, I am ***NOT*** pulling your collective leg.)
Diane Draper: As a writer, how consistent is your schedule? do you tend to get up at the same times and work for similar amounts of time each day? And how skewed are you toward mornings and evenings. (US geeks traditionally avoid mornings for instance)
Autopope Writer: As for my schedule; it varies. I have all the regularity of someone who’s long-term unemployed…
Eliver Delphin: ok, Charles, I wanted to know if tonight’s chat made you change your mind regarding SL 😉
Autopope Writer: Tonight’s chat made my head hurt. (But that might
just have been the beer.)
Eliver Delphin: is that a good or a bad thing? Can we hope for more, in the future?
Autopope Writer: What, more SL interveiws? Maybe — this isn’t my first!
Farblestans Alva: You’ve done a lot of thinking about life, death, the nature of consciousness and its place in the scheme of things. My question to you is do you believe in luck?
Autopope Writer: Luck? No. I believe in pattern recognition. We’ve been optimized by millions of years of remorseless evolutionary selection pressure to spot patterns in our immediate environment … Failing to spot correlations can lead to death … (the jaguar spoor by the water pool, and cousin Uggg not being around today) … So we are highly tuned to notice coincidences. And coincidences going the right way for us, from our point of view, look like “luck”. It’s simply an artefact of our neurological architecture.
isenhand Nightfire: ok, Autopope y do u put some of your books on the internet 4 3?
Autopope Writer: In a word: publicity and promotion. My goals in writing are twofold … (a) to earn a living, and (b) to maximize my readership. These two goals are not necessarily contradictory. I put books on the internet *as and when my publishers let me*. They’re a bit timid, though (which is why not many books are up there yet). As and when my books go out of print, I will be CC releasing them. (I plan to release TOAST, the short story collection, when my next collection comes out — next summer).
Starsky Silverstar: Charles, next year we are going to do the Eurocon in Italy, what do you about coming?
Autopope Writer: One of the hazards of being relatively successful is that your publishers *don’t* want to take risks with you. Not sure about the Eurocon — it depends on the timing. (I’ll be at the Worldcon in Montreal, so if it clashes …) I’m trying to keep things to less than 5 overseas conventions a year at present!
Khannea Suntzu: Ok – charley – if your fan base would cover your living expenses, would this increase or decrease your output?
Autopope Writer: My fan base *does* cover my living expenses — I’ve been writing fiction full time for three years now.
Khannea Suntzu: No, I mean seperately from the book sales. I mean not having the stress of having to deal with publishers and all that crap.
Autopope Writer: Publishers are actually rather useful to me 🙂 They save me from the marketing and printing and sales crap 🙂 And the editors? You wouldn’t want to read my books before they’ve been edited, honest.
Sophrosyne Stenvaag: And that brings us to time!
Autopope Writer: Thank you, you’ve been a great audience!
Sophrosyne Stenvaag: Charlie, thank you so much for a terrific session! And special thanks to Eliver and Delos Books for bringing you here!
Eliver Delphin: and thank you all Extropians for the great event and Sophrosyne for being a fantastic host!
Autopope Writer: Bye!
Photos by Boc Cryotank/Stephen Euin Cobb, used with permission, all rights reserved.