Challenging Destiny Challenging Destiny
New Fantasy & Science Fiction

Interview with Karl Schroeder

Here is our complete interview with Karl Schroeder. It also appears in Challenging Destiny Number 15.

interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer

CD: You were a founding member of SF Canada. What does that organization do?

KS: SF Canada is a national bilingual SF and fantasy writer's association. I was in on the founding meeting in Edmonton, which I believe was in 1989, despite the fact that I at that point hadn't published any short stories. But I swaggered around and made myself look like a big shot writer and they let me in. SF Canada has been going strong for quite a few years now and it has been the main point of contact between a lot of Canadian SF writers who would otherwise be completely isolated. And that was why we created it -- the distances in Canada are so great that it's often very difficult for people to get together. So SF Canada with its online presence and with impromptu meetings that happen at conventions is a way for people to actually meet other Canadian writers. And it's been very successful in that.

CD: You wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing SF with Cory Doctorow. How did you get involved in that?

KS: It was a project that Cory came to me with. He had spoken to Rene Wilmeth at MacMillan USA. At the time MacMillan was interested in doing a line of publishing-oriented Idiot's Guides, of which this would be one. Cory was in as the Campbell-award winning short story writer, but he needed a novelist. So he called me up and I said, "Sure!" I at one time taught writing SF and fantasy at George Brown College for a couple of terms, and I had copious notes on the subject and an itch to actually communicate what I thought I'd learned about the process. So it turned out to be very advantageous for both of us, in terms of getting down on paper all the things we had learned over the years about the whole process of writing and publishing. Which today is not necessarily the same as it was say in 1960 or 1970 when the big names in SF, many of them, got started. We had an opportunity to communicate what it was like to break into publishing SF now, and that turned out to be very well received by a lot of people who had been raised on the old myths about how you do it and really wanted to know how it's done now.

CD: How was collaborating with Cory on that versus collaborating with David Nickle on The Claus Effect?

KS: I have to say that I've never had any problems with collaborations. It helps to like the person you're collaborating with. The process was remarkably similar for both books. In the case of both The Claus Effect and The Idiot's Guide, we wrote alternating chapters throughout the book. I created an outline for The Idiot's Guide and got Cory's approval on it and then we simply divided the labour. While he would be working on chapter 1 I'd be working on chapter 2. Because we both had differing strengths we wrote the chapters and sections that corresponded to our own personal strengths and left the other guy's expertise to him. So it was a remarkably frictionless process. We communicated by email a lot and sent chapters back and forth, but we generally didn't do too much hacking and slashing at each other's work.

The Claus Effect came together in a very odd and unusual way. It was written as an entrant in the 3-Day Novel Competition. So David and I actually had a less-than-1-page outline and had taken a walk in High Park to talk about exactly what we were going to do the day before. Then all we did was set down two computers on the same table in my apartment, and got a whole bunch of sugary snacks and chocolate-covered coffee beans. I put on a CD I'd bought of cheesy Christmas tunes -- including Jan and Dean doing "Here Comes Santa Claus" or something like that -- at precisely midnight on the Friday night. And we simply roared on from there, doing alternating chapters. Since we were sitting opposite each another it was a continuous process of getting each another cranked up because if I was starting to flag he would be giggling and hammering away cheerfully at the keyboard on the other side and it would feed back to me. That and the caffeine helped a great deal. After three days we had a more or less complete novel, which we subsequently lost the 3-day novel competition with. But we then fleshed it out over the space of a few months by a couple of chapters and eventually got published with Tesseract Books in Alberta.

CD: How did you get interested in SF?

KS: When I was growing up, there was about a six-foot long section of mostly Andre Norton novels in the bookshelf in my parents' house. There were also other things -- a lot of mysteries, Agatha Christie and so on, but I fixated on Doc Savage and Andre Norton and just read all of those when I was young. I decided to write because my mother had published a couple of romances when I was a child and I was used to seeing books in the bookshelf with Schroeder on the spine. I just assumed that anyone could do it. In fact, though, I started out doing cartoons for my older brother, and filled up notebook after notebook with these cartoon characters -- a mad scientist and his sidekick going around saving the world from various different evils. At one point I just decided it was too limiting a medium and started scribbling in little notebooks. I was 14 when I made that transition. In a sense, I've always been writing.

CD: How does your Mennonite background affect your writing?

KS: I think that being raised as a Mennonite gave me nothing so much as a sense of outside perspective on the world, because the Mennonites do think of themselves as being outsiders and in a sense observers of the rest of the teeming mass of mankind. I may have adopted a certain amount of that attitude.

Growing up on the Prairies helped a great deal as well because there was us in our small town and then there was the rest of the world somewhere else out there, and there was no contact between the two. So I think while I was growing up the rest of the world was a very mythological place to me. It was very easy for me to play with ideas and play with alternative realities simply because I'd never been anywhere other than Manitoba and the mountains.

CD: You edited an issue of On Spec. How did you like the process of editing versus the process of writing?

KS: I was called in as one of several guest editors for a hard SF issue of On Spec magazine. It was a process I enjoyed a great deal. It was not completely unfamiliar to me to be editing this work, though, because I had been involved at that point with an ongoing writer's workshop for many years, and consequently had edited at least one short story or novel fragment a week for a number of years. So the actual work of going through the manuscripts was familiar to me. I decided in the process, though, I'm really not an editor -- because I tend to be completely uncritical. I like everything. And I may differ in what I enjoy about a particular piece, but one of my great traits is that I'm completely gullible and will fall for any kind of a story. If there's anything even remotely entertaining about what I'm reading, or watching in terms of movies, I will happily edit out of my consciousness all the bad parts and remember only the good. Which in the long run will not make me a very good editor.

CD: How do you find technical writing compared to writing fiction?

KS: I've done a variety of different things over the years -- technical writing, some computer work. I seem to drift into high technology jobs. Technical writing has a completely different kind of discipline than writing fiction. For me, at least, it exercises parts of the brain that don't overlap with my creative parts. On the other hand, it's a very valuable tool for any kind of creative writer because it does teach you a certain discipline in probably much the same way that journalism does -- getting a number of pages done, editing ruthlessly, forcing yourself to go back over material to improve it, and so on. So for a fiction writer it's almost an ideal day job.

CD: How do you research the science elements of your books?

KS: I generally don't tend to do much conscious research because I am omnivorously devouring all new science that comes out, on a daily basis now that the web exists. I've always been an avid reader of science, even up to theoretical physics where the equations get beyond me -- I just read around them and try and get the gist of things. I find that I'm completely unafraid of science, and I also find that that is a rarity -- most people seem to be intimidated by it. But to me it's always been, in a sense, another kind of entertainment to learn this stuff. Consequently I've got this vast store of cool ideas that I can draw upon at any one time. But a corollary of that is I don't tend to think of scientific ideas as what my stories are about. Because I'm awash in the science all the time, my focus turns to other ideas -- the meanings behind the science, if you will.

CD: How do you balance character development and the background exposition for hard SF?

KS: SF is often criticized for bad character development, and I'm not necessarily an exception in that regard. On the other hand, I believe it was Samuel Delany who pointed out that mainstream fiction is about the subject, the person who's experiencing whatever's happening in the story, whereas SF is about the object, the external world that is being experienced. If you bear that in mind as you read SF the apparent slighting of character becomes much more reasonable. You see that character serves the ideas, rather than the other way around as we're generally taught in, for instance, courses on mainstream literature. That said, fiction is about people. You can't have -- although a lot of hard SF writers try -- a SF story with no people in it.

The balance is tricky. For me, I tend to need to get the ideas down first and then return to contemplate character after that. When I do that, everything shifts and re-organizes itself around the characters. But in early drafts I tend to write techno-babble.

CD: Are there any particular authors you think are influences on your writing?

KS: I don't have any idols, as it were. I don't have any people that I consciously imitate. But I have been influenced by Michael Ondaatje, Thomas Pynchon, Mervyn Peake, and recently by Greg Egan and China Miéville. So my influences tend to be all over the map. But they are never realist writers. I write a kind of impressionistic SF, and it probably comes out of writers I admire. Wells is another impressionistic writer, for instance. I'm much more interested in the immediate experience of events, and that tends to go against the grain of SF because SF tends to be very expository, to explain things as if there was only one explanation. Whereas what I like to do is provide the experience of the character without comment if possible, and have that personal experience be the authority of the text. So that puts me probably closer to writers like Wells or Joseph Conrad in terms of what I'm trying to do with the text. I admire but do not emulate writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, who actually wrote a kind of realist form of fantasy.

CD: What are you working on now?

KS: At the moment I'm working on the replacement of politics by technological means. A world of completely immersive augmented reality in which technologies can be banned or mandated so that entire societies -- whether primitive, modern, medieval, what have you -- can all reside side by side or even in the same place without being aware of one another. It's a fascinating world I've been constructing and I'm having a great deal of fun with it.

CD: What's next for information technology? How will we get from where we are now to the technology described in your books?

KS: I think we're seeing the beginning of a new change in the way we relate to information technology. It is more to do with a change in the way we relate to the physical world. Because up until this point computers and information technology had been like Egyptian gods -- they're kept in small boxes at the end of long corridors and enshrined in buildings. That's changing now, with cell phone and wi-fi and other technologies. What's starting to happen now is that information is coming out of the locked box and moving into the environment around us. And what that does is it highlights to us the mediation between us and reality around us by information of one sort or another.

That's going to become glaringly obvious in the next few years when augmented reality starts becoming a real force, and even a commercial force. When you're acutely aware that there's you, there's the object, and in between you there's a mediating force -- that'll have a great number of ramifications, both social and political. But I don't think people are really aware of that at all. When people talk about information technology right now they're still fixated on things like programs and the now-old notion of cyberspace. I don't think in terms of cyberspace at all. It's not really a rational construct to me. It's a notion of the 80s and 90s. What we have now is we have more the idea of explicit and implicit meanings around us. Information technology will begin to make explicit some things that have always been implicit.

CD: Ventus and Permanence both talk about the way different types of societies use the same technologies -- there's a social construction of the use. Do we ask enough questions about technology use now?

KS: In the current project that I'm working on, I'm using a quote from a book called Autonomous Technology by a man named Langdon Winner, an MIT Press book from 1977. The relevant quote is, "Technology is legislation." In other words, there is no difference in terms of societal change between introducing a new technology and legislating a new law. You could view the pill, for instance, as being a piece of legislation that mandated equality in the workplace and a greater role for women in society. So every time we introduce a new technology we introduce a social change. And the strange fact is that we're not aware we're doing it. People who are strictly technophilic, who love technology for its own sake, tend to blind themselves to the fact that introducing any new technology, for instance cell phones and wi-fi, is the equivalent of a palace coup. It is an end run around existing political and social systems. But it's an end run that they're performing with absolutely no idea where they're going. So I do tend to be critical of technological change for its own sake because it is an external force with a life of its own, in a sense a Frankensteinian force. In the long run, there is no reason whatsoever to think that it will result in benign changes all the time.

CD: Do you think societies can change whether technology change is benign?

KS: That is precisely what my new book is about. The other quote from Winner that I'm using is, "Different modes of social life require different technologies for their realization." So you could imagine a world in which we've fully developed all the technologies that are relevant to human existence and then for us to turn around and say, "How do we want to live?" Having said that, a set of technologies appropriate to that mode of life present themselves. You implement those, and you exclude the rest. And that is the only way that you achieve the kind of life that you want. In a world in which all possibilities are realized, the technologies rule us. And you end up with something that I call the monoculture. It's the complete annihilation of cultural differences in the face of a single technological totalitarianism. The alternative is to actually make choices about what you will and won't implement.

CD: We have a column about the Alien movies in this issue. What do you think of those movies?

KS: I really enjoyed the Alien movies when they first came out. And now I find except for the second one I tend not to be able to view them again. They were very heavily dependant on the novelty of what they were doing, I think. If you've seen them enough times you know what's coming and it doesn't shock or surprise you so much. It was really the shock of the new that made those movies effective, at least for me.

CD: As somebody who's concerned with science in SF, do SF movies match up with your expectations?

KS: When I was growing up I was acutely aware that there was no good SF film, with the possible exception of 2001. That did change after 1976, though, with Star Wars. I think now there's a fair amount of understanding and respect for SF in the film community. And I'm very grateful to that. On the other hand, the criteria for success of a SF movie are different in Hollywood than they are for me. For instance, in the past year there were two Philip K. Dick stories done as movies. One was Minority Report and the other was Imposter. And I found Imposter to be a much better SF story than Minority Report. It did not pull its punches in terms of the ideas of Philip K. Dick. It was relentless in is depiction of this paranoid questioning of who you really are. But it didn't do nearly as well at the box office. So the values are different, and you do have to bear that in mind as a storyteller and writer. If, God forbid, any of my works should be filmed I would have to separate my expectations entirely from what I had for the original story or novel. Because they are different media. The current best success is Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. Which is the most faithful treatment of a fantasy story I've ever seen -- it's amazing.

CD: So what if Peter Jackson came and said he wanted to make a movie of one of your books?

KS: I don't think I'd object too much.

CD: Is there any chance you would ever write a script or a teleplay?

KS: I could see myself doing it, but on my current writing schedule it would have to follow from some kind of a contract. I'm a full time novelist right now, and it really does take all my mental energy, such that I'm not even writing short stories at the moment -- even though I've obviously got a great deal of incentive to do so. But I've always been most comfortable as a novelist. To really express myself I need at least 100 000 words, so more compressed media are difficult for me. Short stories and dialogue-based fiction such as screenplays are a lot more like poetry -- they're very compressed, very difficult to work in. I don't think it would take any less time to write a 90-page film script than it would take for me to write a 500-page novel. At the moment, it's novels.

CD: As the rate of technological change increases, how do you as a SF writer keep up with getting ahead of that curve?

KS: There was a time when I was a bit worried about the increasing rate of change in science and technology. That's most well represented by Vernor Vinge's notion of the technological singularity. The idea that the pace of technological change is increasing at an exponential rate. I no longer believe that. If you look around for instance at the internet, essentially nothing has changed in internet technologies in the past 10 years -- the last significant technological innovation there was the web browser. Since then companies have been spending billions of dollars scrambling over one another to try to come up with the next new thing. And it always ends up being a variation on email, or the web browser, or some database-related technology. Innovation in the area that we tend to think of as the great burgeoning creative engine is completely dead. If you look at a James Bond movie from the late 60s you'll see exactly the same jet planes that we travel in today. Our society is in many respects extremely static. We fixate on small things that change a great deal, and use that in an argument to try and convince one another that the whole world is changing. But in fact it's not so.

CD: Do you think we'd be blindsided by a new innovation that we don't see today? If that's so, how do you try and write something like that?

KS: The nature of the future is that it is unexpected -- that is the very definition of the future. So we will be blindsided by new changes, and the most likely areas for that are genetic engineering and environmental technologies. I'm sure you've heard before that SF is not necessarily about the future -- it's more about now and our responses to changes that happen now. And I do tend to take that attitude. I don't believe in the technological singularity for a variety of reasons. Some of those relate to the fact that technology is still a human invention. Many people talk about autonomous technology -- machines making machines, and the resulting control of society passing over to them. But I actually don't see that happening, at least not any time soon. If you have worked with computers for any length of time you know just how stupid they really are. We have absolutely no clue how intelligence and consciousness work. There's a fun theory floating around right now that intelligence, if you measure it as efficiency, means that a thermostat is one of the smartest things around -- because it does its job perfectly and with almost no effort. You could imagine programming a giant supercomputer to try and anticipate human beings' temperature needs and set them in a room but the thermostat does an even better job without having to think. That again is somewhat related to what I'm writing right now.

CD: Would you ever write fantasy as opposed to SF?

KS: I don't see much of a distinction between fantasy and SF, personally. Because I have a very jaundiced view of science. I tend to think of fantasy as being a fiction of the inner world. So if I was more concerned about character and nuance of emotion I would write fantasy. My favourite fantasy is Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake in which there is no elves, no magic, no ghosts, nothing remotely supernatural -- the ordinary trappings of fantasy. To me it's much more a question of atmosphere and attitude than it is about whether you use magic or technology. The Claus Effect and "The Toy Mill" are two examples of fantasies that I've co-written.

Ventus was fun, in that it was a hard SF book that disguised itself as fantasy. But it could easily have gone the other way around -- I could have written a book that started out as SF and turned into fantasy. It was really the question of what served the theme best. In this case nanotechnology was just an irresistible tool to use to exhibit what I wanted to.

Last modified: December 1, 2002

Copyright © 2002 by Karl Schroeder

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #15 | Interviews