Karl Schroeder: Crocodiles
Karl Schroeder was born into a Mennonite community in southwestern Manitoba, started writing at age 14, and moved to Toronto as an adult, where he became a founding member of SF Canada, serving as its president from 1996-7. He sold a few stories to Canadian magazines in the '90s, expanding one into The Claus Effect (1997, with David Nickle). His first solo book, nanotech novel Ventus, appeared in 2000, followed by Permanence in 2002. He collaborated with Cory Doctorow on The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction (2000). Schroeder lives in East Toronto with his wife Janice Beitel. They are expecting their first child in May.
Photo by Beth Gwinn
Directory: links to descriptions
and reviews of Permanence
Excerpts from the interview:
“My hometown of Brandon had a population of about 45,000 and a university, so there was an interesting mix of people: intellectuals, farmers... (it also had one of the province's largest mental institutions). The one thing I can trade on in my background is that I came from a community that always considered itself to be outsiders. (The other SF writer to come from the Mennonites was A.E. van Vogt.) The favorite catch phrase of the Mennonites was, 'In the world, but not of the world.' Profoundly suspicious of politics, of the entire apparatus of civilization, even of organization on the level of cities, but very intellectual because of the Protestant requirement that each person be their own Bible scholar. You think for yourself, and you decide moral issues for yourself. So there was a tradition of being simultaneously isolationist and required to think which came out in my parents, both iconoclastic in their own way. I thought of myself as an outsider in a lot of ways as I was growing up. Not in a bad way; more as an observer. I often find myself thinking as an observer of science fiction rather than as a participant.
“My mother wrote a couple of romances when I was a kid, and I always saw books in our bookshelf with 'Schroeder' on the spine. (We pronounce the name 'Schrayder,' but I don't mind being called 'Schroder.') So I naturally assumed everyone wrote, and it was obviously easy if my mom could do it! I intended to be famous by the time I was 16, and rich by the time I was 20. Curiously, it didn't pan out!”
“Ventus came out of something of a crisis of confidence, a period of my life when I seriously came to realize there was no money in [writing]. If I was going to do it, I was going to have to do it for myself. I had written a couple of novels that I was unable to sell, which were both attempts to capture what I perceived to be the commercial audience. With Ventus, I did not expect I would ever show it to anyone. It was only later, several hundred pages in, when I started to cautiously show it to some friends, that people started to tell me it was the best stuff I had ever done. The break really came from getting to know some of the New York publishers and submitting a manuscript to David Hartwell. He saw the first drafts of Ventus and encouraged me to work on it. There was a big lesson in that: to continue to please myself, not to worry about the market.
“It was quite deliberate to mix genres in Ventus. Generic distinctions are pretty artificial to begin with, and this was just a way of illustrating that. It probably would have been possible to flip the whole thing around and make it a fantasy that looked at first like science fiction. I could have gone either way with it, because the issue was not what the real world was, but the relationship of man and nature on a more fundamental level than most of the SF I tend to read. I invented a philosophical concept known as 'Thalience,' which may be completely spurious but served the purpose of the novel.
“I tend to believe, with Samuel R. Delany, that science fiction is a literature of the object as opposed to a literature of the subject. When it comes to critical theories about literature, we're in a fairly ossified situation. It just isn't considered art to write literature that is not about the human condition. SF is about how we relate to the world, but when you're coming out of a long tradition where the interior of the mind was more important than the exterior world of action and society, that's what's valued.”
“In Permanence, I'm dealing with two alternative futures of religion: one encompassing oneness with the universe and the other completely concerned with the individual mind. I wouldn't call it New Wave stylistically, however there are some relevant ideas -- about religion, the meaning of life, that issues of meaning will be more important in the future than issues of technology and the apparatus of colonization. These people have the technology to colonize other worlds. What they don't necessarily have is a reason, as human beings, to be there. Coming up with that sort of reason is a much more difficult thing, and I don't think I would have gotten that from standard space opera. From the New Wave, I got the questioning on certain levels: psychological, metaphysical. That said, I would like to do more experimental work, but the experiment has to have a purpose.
“There's a commonality in both Fermi's Paradox and the idea of Vernor Vinge's Singularity. They both can be understood a lot better when you start thinking in terms of the viability of organisms. In Permanence, my take on the Paradox is that technology does not necessarily guarantee longevity. In fact, if you have to use technology you're obviously unfit for the environment you're living in. It doesn't make any sense to view civilized, technological species as the culmination of evolution -- it's quite the opposite way around. I give the example of crocodiles. Crocodiles are successful because they are extremely well fitted to their environment. We might build cities in swamps, but as soon as the city burns down or whatever, the crocodiles will be back.”
The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the May 2003 issue of Locus Magazine.
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