Interview with Charles Stross & Cory Doctorow

Interview with Charles Stross & Cory Doctorow

To celebrate the launch of the off-the-wall post-singularity novel Rapture of the Nerds we've been lucky enough to grab the gestalt entity responsible - Charles Stross & Cory Doctorow - and ask them about the book, working together and plans for the future.

Ant: So how did this collaboration come about?

Charlie: (We get asked this so often that it's an FAQ. Here's the canned answer.)

In stages. At first, Cory and I were chatting in email; one of us raised the idea of writing a story together -- it's quite common for SF authors to do this sort of thing for shits and giggles. So I rummaged in the dumpster of dead projects and coughed up a hairball of around 1000 words length; the opening of a story I hadn't been able to continue writing. Cory broke new ground, adding to it, then bounced it back at me. We played ping-pong with it via email until it ran to 20 000 words, then (to our surprise) sold it to, at that time the highest-paying short fiction market in our field. That story was Jury Service, the first quarter of Rapture of the Nerds.

A couple of years later we were contacted by Lou Anders, who was then editing the magazine Argosy. He'd read Jury Service and wanted to commission us to write a sequel (Appeals Court), which he eventually published back-to-back with its predecessor in a limited-edition chapbook.

And then Tom Doherty, CEO of Tor, our publisher, heard about these collaborations. And he told his editors, buy the Doctorow/Stross novel! -- even though no such novel really existed, and we were both working on other projects.

For a few years we were both busy doing other things; once a year we'd touch base. But then two things happened. First, Locus magazine ran a satirical April Fool's news piece about us (Stross and Doctorow hired to write authorized sequel to Atlas Shrugged), and then it turned out we both had a six month gap in our schedules. So we went back to work and wrote the second, larger, half of what by now had grown into a novel, one 1000 word chunk at a time.

Cory: The collaboration came about because Charlie emailed me while I was living in San Francisco and he was living in Edinburgh. We'd had correspondence before, he was a boing boing reader, I'd read his work in Asimovs - I presume he'd read my work and he asked if I'd like to collaborate.

I said sure and so he sent me this story he'd been working on for some time called Jury service that he felt a bit stuck on which he'd written about 1000 words so I re-wrote 1000 words and tacked on about 1000 more and sent them back to him. He re-wrote what I'd written and sent it back to me and back and forth we went playing trans-atlantic table tennis and eventually we had a story and we did "appeals court" in much the same way a couple of years later and that was a lot rockier.

The first one there was a lot fewer things at stake - there wasn't any backstory, there wasn't any cannon so it was easier to veer in any direction while the second one I think we both had an idea of where we wanted to go and it didn't quite match up and there is a section in the second one you can literally - if you read the first publication of that story Appeals Court that came out in Lou Anders zine Argosy - you'll see that there are scenes where literally he runs in one direction and then turns around and runs in the other direction back and forth (very tediously in my opinion) and that was the result of Charlie and I arguing with one another in prose.

By the time we got to the third one we were both much better at this stuff and the third one just cracked along. We went back and re-edited those first two and made it all into one big smooth piece.

Ant: The Rapture of the Nerd features a post-singularity existence. The idea of a Singularity event becoming an increasingly popular subject - do you really think it will become a reality within the 21st century?

Charlie: Probably not. I tend to think it's a cognitive error we techies are prone to -- one with deep philosophical roots in Christian eschatology. The rapture of the nerds isn't just a figure of speech, it's an ironic pointer to the fact that the singularity plays the same role in a certain techno-optimist zeitgeist that the rapture plays in the world view of fundamentalist baptists.

Cory: I don't think there is any point in thinking of the rapture or the singularity as a technological prediction. To me it just doesn't seem like that's the most interesting thing about it. I think the most interesting thing about the idea of singularity is that it represents a kind of interesting reflection on the state of the human race at the moment and particulary my tribe of technologists.

It's much more interesting to ask why do people believe in a prediction of a singularity than is the singularity a good prediction and you know, to understand why people believe in singularity I think you have to start with what we believed in before we believed in improvement and that was slow decay.

In the days before the modern era, before the enlightenment we had this idea of Lapsarianism - the idea that the world would get progressively worse - that we had started in the garden of Eden and with every passing generation we fell further from grace and that eventually we would reach a point where all of our grace had been exhausted where things could get no worse. We call that point Armageddon, it's the end of the world and you know, people believed in that right up until the enlightenment and the enlightenment changed things because the enlightenment replaced the idea of Lapsarianism with progress, that things will get steadily better forever. But the mind recoils from an unbounded system, the mind recoils from infinity and so having considered the idea of infinite progress the human race decided it needed a boundary condition - or at least the leading practitioners of technology decided it needed a boundary condition and they imagined a singularity; the point at which things got so good that they couldn't get any better and they just kind of exploded beyond our comprehension. That I think is where singularity prediction comes from and if you want to understand that better I think you should look at why these things are easy to believe. Why is Lapsarianism easy to believe, why is the progressive apocalypse like the singularity easy to believe.

Lapsarianism is pretty easy to understand from an historical perspective if your a kind of bronze age mystic whose managed to reach the ripe old age of 60 or 70 the one thing you are going to be awfully sure of is that in the old days the colours were brighter, the tastes tasted better, the smells smelled better; young people were certainly more respectful of their elders (this is something that we've been complaining about since the time of Socrates) and that things were generally going to hell and so it was easy to see that we are clearly falling from grace.

Well today you have people like me who grew up being somewhat on the forward edge of technology who always seemed to understand the technology that the people around them didn't understand and for whom as things go faster and faster as inevitably happens the technology that goes past you starts to exceed your grasp and you start to wonder the fuck is everybody using facebook when it's so demonstrably fucking awful you conclude that actually things have sped up so much that its not only you cant understand it but that no-one can understand it and as a result we must be headed for another kind of apocalypse, another kind of worlds end.

Ant: If this digital "rapture" did happen, can you see the majority of humanity discarding their biological form for the purely digital? - Would you go digital if you could?

Charlie: I think it's a grotesquely distorted understanding of the likely consequences of such technologies. And I'd only do it if I was dying and running low on alternatives.

Cory: If the digital rapture did happen, if there was an "upload event" or if uploading was possible then you get a kind of tautological victory since uploading makes you infinitely fecund because you can make as many copies of yourself as you need and infinitely prolonged as there is no reason for you to ever die. All of the people who plumbed for it would soon both outnumber and outlive all the people who didn't so of course that would be the victory condition right? That people who didn't upload would form a rump on the people who did.

Ant: Do you really see humanity developing into a "hive-mind" gestalt entity? How would one then maintain their identity (presuming they could)?

Charlie: I don't think that's a likely option. (As for your second question, it hinges on the idea that one can define identity. I'm not so sure we can do that ...)

Cory: No, I don't.

Ant: > I've been saying for ages that there isn't enough good comedy within the science fiction genre, what encouraged you to help fill this void?

Charlie: The clear and pressing need for a slapstick belly-laugh at the expense of the sacred cows of transhumanism. Seriously, people take this stuff way too seriously! It's in danger of becoming a secular religion.

Cory: I think that's inherent in the nature of team writing, there's this kind of fun game you can play with a collaborator where each of you tries to kind of out-do the other in comic slap-dash mad-cap funniness and so that's definitely something Charlie and I did where we really tried to out-do one another. There is this inherent thing when you are writing with someone else it's fun where each of you try and out-do the other with your gonzo comedy styling and certainly that's something Charlie and I did and it did make the thing funny and it was fun to write as well as fun to read.

Ant: The Rapture of the Nerds is also a very forward-thinking novel - it's modern in just about every sense including the very idea of gender and sexuality - what inspired you to include these messages?

Charlie: What makes you think they're messages?

Cory: Well for one thing sexism is inherently funny, you know? There is a reason why every comedian who is any good works blue - sex is just funny. Also because if there is a signal characteristic about our understanding of the human condition in this particular moment it's the fluidity of gender, the idea that gender isn't binary; that it's malleable. Certainly if you are talking about people being able to escape their bodies why should their gender come with them so it seems like a pretty straight-forward and straight-ahead piece of speculation to imagine that gender and sexuality would become rather fluid.

Ant: The novel is a fantastic fusion of your voices, a very effective synergy - Are you guys going to work together again?

Charlie: I have no idea. It depends how busy we both are.

Cory: Well yes, we've written other pieces. We wrote flowers for Al and Unwired together, I'm sure we'll write other things together as well. The biggest problem isn't willingness, it's availability. It took us a very long time to line up a gap in both of our diaries in which we could write the third section of this novella and presumably it will take a long time to do this again so yeah I would say that it's entirely possible that we will work together again but it will take a long time before we get there. I've got a family that I am pretty busy with, Charlie is writing a couple books a year and I'm writing a book a year and I've got Boing Boing. Charlies doing some board work and I'm doing some board work and so on and so forth and it just keeps us busy but it was fun writing this and I hope we'll have a chance to work together again.

Ant: What have you guys got planned next?

Charlie: I've got a new novel coming out in July -- a space opera that just happens to be an allegory about the banking crisis of 2007-08, complete with communist space squid and alien space bat accountancy pirates. I'm also in the process of re-launching my Merchant Princes series of alt-hist techno-thrillers, and writing the next three (near future) books in the series.

Cory: We'll there are a couple of books coming out from Titan, the first is Pirate Cinema which is just about to drop. It's a Young Adult novel that came out in the United States in the fall to great critical and commercial success and it's a book about a young man from Bradford who likes to make his own movies by downloading other movies and re-cutting them into entirely novel creations. He finds himself in a bad place when his downloading gets his family disconnected from the internet under the digital economy act which says that if your caught or if you are accused really of downloading three times we take away your internet access and having lost his internet access and internet access of his family, his family are just destroyed. They lose their income, his father loses his job, his mother loses her benefit - she can't sign on for benefits any-more. His sister's grades start failing at school because she can't study properly any-more and the library has been shut and so on and so forth. And so in a Dickensian turn he runs away to London and joins a youth gang of freedom anarchist squatter / hacker types and they decide to destroy the entertainment industry through systematic piracy before the entertainment industry can destroy Britain through bad copyright laws and you know, hilarity ensues.

The book after that Titan is bring out is my novel Homeland which is the sequel to my young adult novel Little Brother that also just came out in the states in February (I've had a very busy year) spent 4 weeks on the New York times best-seller list and attracted a lot of very good critical attention and as I say it's the sequel to Little Brother. My agent is shopping a non-fiction book that I recently finished called "Information doesn't want to be free" about copyright and I am working on a novella for Neal Stevenson's Hieroglyph project called The man who sold the moon which is about hackers who land autonomous 3D printers on the moon that can turn moon dust into structural members and who spend a generation directing this operation from the earth until it prints out a lunar habitat and I'm working on a prequel to my first novel Down and out in the magic kingdom.

Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross is out now, published by Titan Books, £7.99. This review was posted as part of the Rapture of the Nerds Mind-bending Blog Tour. For more details visit: Rapture of the Nerds Mind Bending Blog Tour.

We've also reviewed Rapture of the Nerds, which you can read here: Rapture of the Nerds review

The book is peppered with references to pop-culture staples (The Matrix, Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy amongst others). To be in with a chance of winning a SIGNED copy simply tweet the fictional piece of technology that you would most want let loose in the real world to @doctorow @csross @titanbooks with the hashtag #RaptureoftheNerds.

The co-authors will vote for their favourite fifteen pieces of tech and each top tweeter will be sentenced to a free copy. The Jury is still out. Good luck.