Interview Spotlight: Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (Pt. I of III)

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We here at The Artificial Selection Project recently caught up with Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross to discuss, among various other things, their recent conglomeration, The Rapture of the Nerds, and the ideas behind such a strange, fascinating tale. Read on to discover what drives these wonderful writers to the vast brinks of science-fiction and be sure to stay tuned for the release of Interview Spotlight Parts II and III, in which we pull aside the individual artists to discuss the process of collaboration, as well as getting some fantastic advice for budding, enthusiastic writers!

ASP: How and why did you decide to collaborate? How did the writing process work? (i.e. How did you divide the writing? How did you negotiate any differences of opinion?) What were the benefits of working with someone else rather than working alone?

Stross: We were chatting via email around 2003, and the subject of collaboration came up: it just seemed like a good idea at the time. As I recall, we were discussing what to do, and I had a fragment of a short story that I couldn’t complete sitting around on my hard disk. I threw it at Corey, he looked at it and added a thousand words, and emailed it back to me. We took it from there. To some extent, we were simply jamming. But by the time we had 10,000 words, we knew we were onto something: so when we finished “Jury Service,” we sent it to Ellen Datlow at [now]. And she bought it!

The process of writing collaboratively was quite simple; we were playing table tennis. The manuscript is the ball. Ping, Pong! We were sending a manuscript back and forth as an attachment using email, so if something came up that we didn’t agree on, we would just discuss it in the accompanying mail messages. Additionally, before I could add my 500 or 1000 words to the existing manuscript, I had to read and edit Cory’s previous piece, and vice versa. So it sort of grew organically, and by the time we finished the novella, every section had been edited by both of us at least once.

As to the drawbacks and benefits of working together, they are numerous. Drawbacks: each author has to do three quarters of the work! (Somehow 50% of the total input vanishes, presumably as waste heat emitted via the friction of the collaborative process.) Benefits: writing is an incredibly isolated job. You go into an office each morning, work for several hours, then go home. During that time, probably the only person you see is your officemate, who is hairy and says meow a lot. It is, in other words, short on human contact! Which makes an opportunity to work with other human beings all the more valuable.

Doctorow: Charlie emailed me about 7 or 8 years ago, while I was living in San Francisco, and asked me if I would be interested in collaborating with him. And we had never met but I had read his work and I really liked it, and I said I’ll give it a shot. So he sent me about a thousand words of something that he had been working on that he had gotten stuck on, and it was quite crazy and gonzo, and I thought Ok, challenge accepted. I’ll write another thousand words and send it back. And that’s how we did it. And that was “Jury Service” and we did it again for “Appeals Court,” and then several years later did that for the final third “Parole Board.” It was quite fun writing with Charlie. He’s kind of a loony, as you’ll know from his work, so he’s very funny and he’s got a very wild imagination. Playing one upmanship with him where we both try to top the other for weirdness was really good fun, as I think you’ll see in the book.

We didn’t have an enormous number of disputes. I think the second chunk of it, the “Appeals Court,” had the most disputes, and we mostly just emailed back and forth and chopped chunks out and put them back in as we needed to. But it was really a very straightforward, collaborative process. The major benefit of working with someone else is that you end up with a kind of third writer who is neither you nor the other person, but is someone who in an ideal world that represents the best of both of you. And the demerit is the obvious one, as everyone says about collaboration, each person does seventy-five percent of the work.

ASP: It sounds like a journey. Just out of curiosity, what are your general stances on the idea of technological singularity? Are there any points upon which you do not entirely agree, and if so, what was the effect on the narrative of The Rapture of the Nerds?

Stross: Over the past decade and a half my stance on singularity has drifted from being broadly optimistic about it, to being of the opinion that it is quite probably a mirage. My 2005 novel Accelerando was my main exegesis on the subject of the singularity, circa 1995-2005. Rapture of the Nerds brings it up to date with my subsequent thinking. It’s a sceptical, if not affectionate, examination of the social and political failings of human beings as they try to apprehend the singularity.

Doctorow: My view of the singularity is this: whatever its technical plausibility, the reason that it has so much currency today and the reason that the idea is so attractive to people is because it represents a continuation of transcendent thought. I think that in the pre-Enlightenment days, we had the idea of Lapsarianism, that things have been getting worse and worse and worse since humanity got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. It’s kind of easy to see how your basic bronze-age bearded prophet might decide that the world is getting worse and worse and worse. I mean,  by the time you reach the ripe old age of 35 and all your teeth have fallen out and you’re decrepit and dying, it’s pretty clear that the world isn’t nearly as good as it used to be. Certainly children don’t look to their elders the way they used to, and colors used to be brighter and flavors were more flavorsome and the people of your preferred gender were more preferential and so on. And it’s very easy to see why that personal experience might lead you to believe that the world is falling apart at the seams. And then along comes the Enlightenment and this idea that things are going to get better and better and better and that “betterness” was driven by the idea that we can stand on the shoulders of giants and build on the work of the people who came before us. And I think that in both cases – in the world that gets worse as well as in the world that gets better – our imagination balks at the idea of an unbound system that just continues and continues. If things are going to get worse and worse, they must reach a point of no more worse – a point where you have obtained the absolute zero of “worseness.” And when that arrives, you have the apocalypse. And if you think of this idea that things are going to get better and better, you run up against the same imaginative limits, that things can’t get any more “better.” Our imaginations recoil from the idea that progress will continue forever, and at that point, you get a kind of progressive apocalypse, you get a rupture with history. And I certainly think that’s something we reflected in the book.

I don’t really have a stance on whether or not singularity is likely or unlikely. I think the reductionist singulatarian argument – that if you replace a small part of someone with a computer they are still that person, and if you just keep incrementally replacing parts of them with computers or machines, they remain them, and if you can get right to the end and replace all of you with machine, are you still you – at that point you’re just sort of stipulating that it’s possible for humans and machines to meld and I don’t think that’s actually a very good argument. I actually think that if you were to cut off a rather important piece of a person, say a concert pianist’s hands, and that even if you replaced them with robot hands, no matter how good those robot hands were, the actual experience would be so traumatic that it wouldn’t be the same person. They would still be a person, they would be continuous with the person they were before, but if you gave [them] a Turing test, in which you had a concert pianist before you cut his hands off and, after you cut his hands off, you were asking him questions about important matters, that it would be pretty surprising if he gave the same answers. In fact you would have two different people, in effect, even though one would have given rise to the other. I think that’s likewise true of people across long spans of time. If you were to ask me what matters to me now and ask me fifteen years ago what mattered to me, you would get very different answers. It would be very hard using a Turing test of the me of today to prove that I am the me of fifteen years ago and vice versa. So I think that we don’t even know what it means to be continuous with an identity. To say that we can move the embodiment of an identity into silicon or other digital substrate really begs the questions: what is identity, what is the locus of identity, what is the continuity of identity? Do we just fool ourselves into thinking we are the same person as we were five or ten years ago, when really what we are is a series of different people, one evolving into the next in the same way that two speciated songbirds, two Darwin finches, emerge from the other through a smooth curve of small evolutionary changes, and, having attained speciation, they are by definition no longer of the same species and they really don’t have anything to say to each other. And I wonder, given that example, if we can ever really say that the singularity is a plausible outcome, because the singularity requires that we make an intact transformation into a digital world, and I don’t know that such a thing is possible.


Interview done by Linsey Duncan & Kevin Cullen


One response to “Interview Spotlight: Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (Pt. I of III)

  1. Pingback: Submission time is NOW | The Artificial Selection Project | Hey Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!·

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