Monday, 8 April 2013

An Interview With Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow, Authors of 'Rapture of the Nerds'

Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow, authors of 'Rapture of the Nerds', have very kindly taken the time to talk about their new book to Patrick Challis.

PC:  How did the collaboration come about?

CS:  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.

CD:  Charlie wrote to me when I was living in San Francisco and he was living in Edinburgh.  We hadn't actually met at that point but we knew each others work and I had read his work and Asimov's and he had commented frequently on Boing Boing.  So we got to know each other a bit and he sent me an email asking if I would like to collaborate and I said sure.  He said he had this story he was stuck on called 'Jury Service' and he sent me the first 500-1000 words so I rewrote it and added another 500-100 words and back and forth we went.  Over the course of a month or so we banged out 'Jury Service'.  We tried to do the same with 'Appeals Court' but we seemed to be a lot less in tune with each other and there was literally a lot of to and froing in which Huw, the protagonist, literally runs in one direction and then the other as we tried to wrestle control from one another.  Thankfully in the rewrite for 'Rapture of the Nerds' that got fixed. We had planned to write 'Parole Board' the third novella, which is twice as long as the first two put together.  We'd planned to do that for a fully long time but we had never gotten around to it because we were always both working on our own books but we finally did get round to it and that one went much more smoothly.  We had a quick face to face meeting at some conference or another, we also had a Skype call or two and out the book came, I think probably because we were much further along and more journeyman like in the way that we worked.

PC:  How did writing together differ from writing your own work?

CS:  When you're writing on your own you've got no-one else to blame when things don't work properly. And no misunderstandings or communication errors.

CD:  The downside as Charlie says is that you have a lot of misunderstandings and communication errors, not that you lack for misunderstandings and communication errors when you're working on your own, it's possible to miscommunicate with yourself as any writer that has ever made a continuity error can attest to but they're different in both scale and kind when you're working with a second writer.  The plus side of the difference is while it's occaisionally  true when you write your own material you go back and reread it and discover that you did something you don't remember doing you quite like and think "gosh I had no idea I was that clever".  That happens far more often when you are collaborating in my experience that the two of you often form a synthesis that's better than either one of you could have done on your own and that in hindsight when you go back you don't remember who wrote what but you can often be favorably impressed with it.

PC:  Was it harder to write as a duo then on your own?

CS:  Yes, definitely. When you write a long work like a novella (short novel) or novel, you don't simply punch out words from start to finish. You work in chunks, and a common method is to start each day by editing or re-writing the previous day's output. When you're working with another author, slinging daily additions back and forth, you then end up re-writing your collaborator's output in your own style, to blur the boundaries. What emerges is a weird kind of hybrid output -- not your own wording, but not his, either. Only by the time you add it all up, you've each written 75% of the book!

CD:  Absolutely as Charlie says there is the co-ordination cost.  The co-ordination cost is the hidden cost of everything you do.  Ronald Coase won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1937 for his work on co-ordination costs in a paper called 'The Theory of the Firm" where he hypotheses the major difference between two institutions is how they solve co-ordination problems not what they try to do in the service of those solutions.  So the difference between the Vatican and the Mafia isn't that ones a religious institution and the other one is a criminal institution.  The major difference between them is how they get their workers to work together and minimise the amount of overlap and crossed purposes that go on.  That's also true of businesses, of drug syndicates and anyone else you care to name and so we had to tie the certain amount of work we did with one another to the co-ordination but on the other hand we got to enjoy the benefit of some pretty cool next generation tools for collaboration including email and so on.  When Bruce Sterling and Bill Gibson wrote 'The Difference Engine' they were stuck Fedex-ing floppy discs back  and forth whereas we got to fire emails back and forth instantaneously and for free.

PC:  If you had to explain this book in 40 words or less to someone, how would you both do so?

CS:  A dialectic conveying a critique of extropian/cosmist ideology with reference to its Christian eschatological roots, disguised as a series of slapstick pratfalls. Also, embarrassing incidents in posthuman bathrooms.

CD:  Explain the story in 40 words or less?  I'll just leave that to Charlie's explanation.

PC:  The book concerns a rapture brought on by the march of technology and really has a great sense of paranoia about that bubbling through the novel. How did you come up with such an idea?

CS:  We didn't come up with it. The Singularity has been a hot topic in written SF since roughly 1987, and in one particular branch of eschatology since the 1880s -- it's no accident that its first modern formulation came from a Russian Orthodox theologian, one Nikolai Federov, although it was adopted by the Soviet Cosmists by way of his student Konstantin Tsiolkovskii (who, incidentally, invented modern rocketry and pretty much wrote the book on space colonization, inspiring the Russian space program along the way). But it goes back a lot further; it's a reformulation in the garb of scientism of a much older pre-Christian apocalyptic eschatology. The singularity is a fun idea to play with, but once in a while it's a good idea to back off and try to get the big picture, putting it in the context of other human philosophies.

PC:  Was there any point during the writing process in which either of you wanted to take the story in a different direction? If so, how did you resolve that between the two of you?

CS:  Discussions via Skype and email. (We live 400 miles apart. That makes it pretty easy to stay calm; you just sleep on the problem then schedule a chat for the next day.)

CD:  Well as I said in 'Appeals Court' we didn't really resolve the differences we just went back and forth until we got exhausted.  Luckily we fixed that in the rewrite.  But with the last one and the rewrites because we've come along further in several years since we worked together before, we've gotten much better at just doing the work I think, it just happened much more quickly and we either resolved in email or in Skype.  I'll freely admit I'm someone who hates to talk about writing while I'm writing, I prefer to just ride out the problems and this has caused problems with some of my collaborations before.  Ben Rosenbaum and I wrote 'True Names' we ran in to problems with this where Ben would send me a long 2000 word essay and 500 new words of fiction and I'd respond with one sentence and 500 words of fiction and back and forth we went rather at some length but the story turned out well so that's the good news.

PC:  How do you both feel about the Creative Commons Licence involving the free circulation of works of literature?

CS:  That's Cory's signature big idea; I'm happy with it but he's the right one to answer it.

CD:  I think the Creative Commons Licence  is the most important thing to say is using them to give away your work is we don't live in a world where some peoples work isn't available for free and other people make their work available for free under the Creative Commons Licences.  We live in a world where everyone's work is available for free but only some people use the Creative Commons Licences to facilitate that distribution rather than shaking their fist impotently at their readers and potentially best customers and calling them crooks.  So, for me, the Creative Commons Licence commercially acts as a public act of genorosity and trust that reciprocal social contract with readers that works at least some of the time and so it's an advantage that I have over some of the readers that don't use the CC Licences because their free distribution takes place inevitably doesn't include this act of generosity and trust and lacks some of the moral suasion that my work enjoys but there are some other dimensions to this.  The first one is the artistic dimension, that's a pretty important one.  It's the 21st century and copying is never going to get harder.  Your grandchildren will marvel at how hard copying  is here in 2013 and say "tell me again Grandma, tell me again Granndpa, how was it like in 2013 when copying was still hard" and so since copying is never going to get easier then it's a forgone conclusion that any art that people enjoy will be widely copied.  So that means if you are going to make 21st century art that has this motif of the 21st century it should be made for widespread copying otherwise it's not really contemporary.  There's nothing wrong with not making contemporary art, you can make retro art and it can be very good art.  If you  want to be a painter that makes his own gesso by scraping rabbit skins and mixing it with egg shells the way Michelangelo did then that's cool by me.  If you want to me an armorer in a 1066 recreation by all means go and do it.  Frank Zappa "it's the 21st century, anything you can do to have a good time let's get on with it as long as it doesn't cause a murder." I think that's good advice for the 21st century too but don't tell me that making leather mugs at the ren fair, no matter how artistically inspired it might be is contemporary art and since I'm a science fiction writer I should be engaging with contemporary if not the future.  So making art that has this single characteristic of contemporary art, this ability to be freely copied, that makes a huge difference.  Then finally there's this moral dimension because in the name of preventing copying we are adding the systems of censorship control surveillance to the Internet, none of which are having any particular impact on reducing copying but all of which a very strong negative impact on basic liberties on the Internet and quality of life.  After all the Internet delivers enormous benefits to people who get it when Baroness Martha Lane Fox was made the champion for digital inclusion in the UK, she commissioned the Price, Waterhouse, Cooper study of families in the North living in council estates where some of them had been given free Internet access and some of them hadn't.  She compared the outcomes of these two groups and found that the families that had been given free Internet access had a positive impact in basically every dimension that we care about when we measure the success of our social program so it wasn't just that their kids got better grades but the parents had more ready cash, more disposable income, they had better jobs, they had better nutrition, they were more socially engaged, they were more likely to vote, they were likely to be engaged in civic activity.  Everything we care about goes up when we give people Internet but in the name of fighting piracy we enacted the Digital Economy Act.  The Digital Economy Act is a parade of freaking horrors but at  it's worst the DEA is also allows through secondary legislation for people to have their Internet connections disconnected if they happen to live in a housework where there has been some accusation of copyright infringement without due process just because  you live in the same building as a router that someone may or may not have used to watch telly the wrong way you can have all those benefits confiscated.  When you insist that your works may not be copied by your audience without your permission, you contribute to that problem and you are part of it but when you opt out of it through the Creative Commons Licences, your works don't form part of the rubric for that kind of bad  social policy.

PC:  Will those belief's affect the marketing of this book at all?

CS:  They already have.

CD:  Yes of course, it already has as Charlie says.  We are now in a position where not everybody who reads the book has to pay for it but we're also in a position where everybody who is willing to pay has a greater chance of reading the book.  Of course if you want to maximise the amount of money you get and not just how much money you get per reader, that's the right strategy to have 

PC:  So, what's next on the horizion for the two of you?

CS:  This week sees the launch of "The Bloodline Trade" in the UK, published by Tor. This is a completely re-written re-packaged "author's cut" of the first chunk of my Merchant Princes series: previously published in the US, it's a thriller about parallel universes, the politics of economic development, and development traps. (Also, lots of big explosions.) The other two books in the series will follow at one month intervals. And July sees the launch of "Neptune's Brood", a far-future space opera and allegory about the 2007-8 banking crisis, published by Orbit (and Ace in the US).

CD:  Well I've got two more books coming out from Titan this year and in fact before September.  The first is a young adult novel called 'Pirate Cinema' that was inspired in part by the Digital Economy Act that I spoke about earlier.  It's set in Bradford and is about a young man who makes his own movies by downloading and remixing movies and whose whole family and their housing estate gets disconnected from the Internet and he ruins his families life.  It's a kind of Dickensian story.  He  runs away to London and joins a narco syndicalist freegan street gang devoted to destroying the entertainment industry with sistimatic piracy so that the entertainment industry doesn't destroy the country with bad anti piracy laws.

The other book coming is 'Homeland' the sequel to 'Little Brother', which came out in February in the United States and will come out in September in the United Kingdom and which spent four weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List and has gotten very good reviews as has 'Pirate Cinema'.

The work I'm doing right now, my agent is shopping around a new non-fiction book called 'Information Doesn't Want To Be Free' about the copyright wars and I'm also working on a novella for the hieroglyphic project that Neal Stephenson launched and that's a project to produce science technology in mass orientated fiction, stem orientated fiction kind of optimistic but done in collaboration with scientists in the service of inspiring people to take up careers in those fields and to feel good about the possible outcomes in those fields.  I'm working on a story about hackers who land their own autonomous 3D printers on the moon that slowly over the course of a generation laser centre their own lunar habitats for their grandchildren to live in by roving around the room and sucking up moon dust.

I'm also working on a prequel to my first novel 'The Magic Kingdom' about the revolutionary period before that story and gives rise to the system described in it.
PC:  Thank you very much for joining us today, it's been a pleasure.

'Rapture of the Nerds' is out now to buy.

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

The Rapture of the Nerds is peppered with references to pop-culture staples (The MatrixDoctor WhoThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy amongst others). To be in with a chance of winning a SIGNED copy of Rapture of the Nerds tweet the fictions piece of technology that you would most want let loose in the real world @doctorow @csross @titanbooks #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.

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