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March 2008
Locus Magazine
Charles Stross: Spung!
Charles Stross was born in Leeds, England, and began writing SF at age 12. He earned degrees in Pharmacy and Computer Science before becoming a full-time writer in 2000. Stross' short fiction includes numerous award nominees: "Lobsters" (2001), "Halo" (2002), "Router" (2002), and "Nightfall" (2003), with novella "The Concrete Jungle" (2004) winning the Hugo Award and novella Missile Gap (2006) winning the Locus Award.

Stross' novels span a range of styles and genres. His first, Lovecraftian spy thriller The Atrocity Archive (serialized 2001-02) began the Laundry series, with sequel The Jennifer Morgue in 2006. Far-future space opera Singularity Sky (2003) had sequel Iron Sunrise (2004). The Merchant Princes series, multiverse SF masquerading as fantasy, began
Photo by Liza Groen Trombi

Charlie's Place
with The Family Trade (2004), followed by The Hidden Family (2005), The Clan Corporate (2006), and The Merchant's War (2007); The Revolution Business and The Trade of Queens are forthcoming. His "Accelerando" series of SF stories, which appeared in Asimov's beginning with "Lobsters" in 2001 and ending with "Elector" in 2004, were adapted into a novel, Accelerando (2005), a Hugo and John W. Campbell Memorial Award finalist. Far-future SF novel Glasshouse (2006) was a Hugo finalist and winner of the Prometheus Award. His latest book is near-future SF Halting State (2007). Space opera and Heinlein homage Saturn's Children is forthcoming this year.

Stross lives in Edinburgh, Scotland with wife Feòrag NicBhride (married 2003).
Excerpts from the interview:

Halting State had its genesis back in the late '90s, when I was working as lead programmer at a Scottish dotcom start-up. I wanted at first to write a non-fiction book about what it's like to be in a dotcom, but I discovered there was no market for it -- especially after the dotcom boom went bust. So it languished on the shelves for a while. ... Then I began paying more and more attention to the whole MMO thing -- strange goings-on in Second Life, not to mention World of Warcraft -- and I suddenly realized there was a gigantic social phenomenon here that SF had been ignoring. Much as science fiction up until around 1977 didn't even mention the idea of a personal computer, it wasn't mentioning real cyberspace. It had done gosh-wow cyberspace in Neuromancer and Snow Crash in the '80s and '90s, but the real thing was coming along and nobody was writing about it! MMOs are the first commercially successful form of virtual reality. We finally got Gibsonian cyberspace, but a commercial one with millions of users. So it was time to go and dust off that dotcom novel, shunt a lot of the characters and sexiness ten years into the future, and then write a crime thriller set inside a tightly-realized network setting.”


“I'm not really a Mundane SF writer, but there's one thing the mundanes put their finger on that I can agree with, which is that we take too damn much for granted about stock tropes and stock furniture. Faster-than-light travel, or elves at the bottom of the garden, or Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity -- it's still speculative. It's interesting to strip everything out, go back to basics and see if you can make science fiction that works without any speculative ingredients on the technology front, without any magic. I'd say the answer is yes. Halting State has only one technological widget in it that isn't downright possible or in production, and that is a widget companies are trying to build and will be around in the next couple of years in computers.

“My beef with space colonization is that it doesn't make economic sense, absent magic technological wands that we may hope to find but we don't actually have now. It's phenomenally expensive, and it doesn't buy us anything useful. However, space colonization isn't an economic issue; it's a religious one, and there's a lot of people who made it their religion. That is almost enough to drive it to completion -- god help the people who go along.

“My blog post about the unlikelihood of space travel came out, ironically, while I was trying to work out the underpinnings for Saturn's Children, which is a space opera in the mode of late-period Heinlein. I did come up with one interesting conclusion: the reason space colonization is impossible is human beings. Throw away human beings and start with a blank slate like robots, and suddenly it's possible. In a culture of robots (because human beings have gone extinct), it's plausible. These people don't have to worry about breathing oxygen, or the time it takes. They can do it, which is partly what Saturn's Children is about.”


“Heinlein did a lot of stuff in his time, and I'm not convinced that his juveniles were his best work. While a lot of his later stuff is flawed -- it could have done with much more editing, and there was a period where he had medical problems -- he was tackling deeper, more complicated topics. So I thought to myself, 'Why not write a late-period Heinlein tribute? And let's update it as well. I'm about 43. Let's imagine Heinlein had been born 43 years later. He'd be about 57 now. What would Robert Heinlein's later-period novels be like, if he'd had modern medical support and had lived into the age of anime and manga, Spaceship One and Post-Cyberpunk? What would Heinlein be writing then?'

“So I set out to write a modern late-period Heinlein novel. You've got to play by the Heinlein rules. To be canonical, it has to have a red-headed heroine with a nipple that goes 'spung.' This was a first and obvious anchor point. I thought to myself, 'Oh my god, how am I going to have a heroine with a nipple that goes spung?' I suddenly realized, 'Ah, it's a faulty overpressure valve, because she's a sex robot.' Then I thought, 'Hang on -- but she's got existential problems.' Heinlein protagonists start off in a state of instability: something is wrong with their lives. What sort of existential problems will a female sex robot have? Well, she can't get laid because there are no more human beings. She came off the production line the year after the last human male died.”


“I'm slowing down. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with fairly severe hereditary hypertension. It's under control on medication, but it was a wake-up call. The medication doesn't help you write faster. I'm struggling to keep up with two books a year. I'd be a lot happier writing one to one and a half books a year -- or one book plus a bunch of short stuff. I may be able to do that, but not necessarily yet.

“I've been stressed so much by trying to make a living full-time writing fiction, it's difficult. I am doing it successfully, but I'm not yet established enough as a professional to cut my output significantly. I am worrying that having to keep up the force level of output is damaging the quality of the results, and I want to be able to slow up and do a more workmanlike job of it.”

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