Today we’ve got an interview with award-winning science fiction author Charles Stross. His latest book, The Rhesus Chart, is the fifth volume in The Laundry Files, a series that blends spy thrillers, Lovecraftian horror, and workplace humor.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.
Your new book is called The Rhesus Chart, and it’s the fifth book in the Laundry Files series. Why don’t you tell us a bit about the basic premise of the series?
Sure. The basic premise of the series is sort of a mash-up. It’s a humorous horror subsection spy thriller, where the British Secret Service are protecting us from Cthulhu and the Old Ones and other Lovecraftian horrors from beyond space-time. Part of its premise is that magic exists but is essentially a branch of applied mathematics. If you solve the right theorem, creatures elsewhere in the multiverse will hear and possibly obey, giving rise to a field known by its practitioners as applied computational demonology.
How did you first get the idea to combine spy thrillers and Lovecraftian horror?
Let me rewind to 1992, when I began writing a short story entitled “A Colder War,” which eventually surfaced in print around 1998. It’s one of the longest stories I’ve ever written. Now, “A Colder War” started when I was looking at At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft, which had some moments of sublime horror in it. It’s one of his classic stories.
However, Lovecraft’s horror has very much been devalued in recent decades. It’s reached a point where we have plush Cthulhu dolls and bedroom slippers, where it’s suitable subject matter for jokes or for comics. It lacks the level of cosmic horror it originally came with.
In 1992, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, I was trying to think: How do you put the horror back into H.P. Lovecraft? And I suddenly realized, you mate it with something that truly is horrifying. 1992 was just after the end of the Cold War, and if you were alive back then, you lived with the ever-present knowledge that vast intelligences thousands of miles away might at any moment be making decisions that would unleash the power of a thousand suns—basically, melt the skin from your face, and kill everybody around you, and destroy everything you hold dear, for entirely abstract reasons relating to an ideological struggle that never really touches you directly. There was something really terrifying about the Cold War that traumatized the generations that lived through it.
In “A Colder War,” I positioned it as a sort of a sequel to At the Mountains of Madness, in which a vast alien city is discovered, abandoned, in the Antarctic. I posited that, if this had actually happened, over the next decade or so, there would have been first an archeological race and then an arms race, as various global powers sought to steal alien supertechnology, the tools of an extinct race, and put them to use as weapons.
One thing leads to another, and it doesn’t end well. World War Three breaks out, Cthulhu himself is deployed as a weapon from the crypt in the Urals, everybody dies horribly, or worse, wishes they could die. This worked really, really well as a horror story. It’s still anthologized to this day on a regular basis. But, while I wanted to do more with this idea, I couldn’t do it in that particular setting. It was too dark.
Now, if you’re dealing with horror, one way of getting around the idea of it being horrifying—the subject material—is to add some snarky humor to it. We’ve noticed, for example, Jim Butcher do it with the Harry Dresden books. What I was doing with The Laundry Files was, I decided to go at it with situational humor. You take a setting, in this case, a somewhat grungy, down-at-heels, peeling-paint British government agency, dealing with something obscure and quite terrifying, and parachute into it somebody who is totally inappropriate, utterly unsuited to that sort of office culture.
In this case, Bob Howard is sort of a sandal-wearing, slashdot-reading hacker-geek, circa late-1990s dot-com startup culture. He’s been conscripted, effectively, into a branch of the British Secret Service protecting us from the scum of the multiverse. Almost a Men In Black scenario, except very, very different, in MacGuffin, as to what is going on and how it’s run.
He’s flailing around, gradually trying to figure out what is going on and what his role is in all this, as he becomes aware that the shadows are lengthening and some very, very nasty things are on their way to make life hellish all around for everybody.
A large part of the plot armature that the series revolves around is an eventuality that the British government had codenamed “Case Nightmare Green.” The stars are coming into correct alignment for the return of the Elder Gods—H.P. Lovecraft’s alien super-civilization of eons past, who previously owned and occupied this planet and are now returning, and will drive us all insane or kill us, or just sweep us from their halls like the vermin we are. The Laundry’s job is to defend the realm, keep the public from becoming too panicked over what’s going on, and try to find a solution to what is probably the end of the world that is heading towards them like the onrushing lights of a train at the end of a tunnel.
I first became acquainted with your work through your Accelerando stories, which go from before the singularity to after the singularity, and tell what it’s like to live through that period. And it occurred to me, with The Laundry Files, it seems like a similar thing, with the Cthulhu reign, where it seems like, with Case Nightmare Green, this is going to be a story that starts out before Cthulhu comes and ends after Cthulhu has come. Do you see any similarities there?
Quite possibly. The key similarity here is they’re both science fiction, and they’re both written in that form of science fiction that is the literature of disruption. In many forms of literature, it’s against a setting which is essentially unchanged, but a story—your classic “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” story in any random genre, be it romance, or historical, or just a mainstream novel—doesn’t necessarily change the universe it’s set in, whereas, there’s a particular flavor of science fiction where nothing is ever the same after the climax of the story that is narrated within it.
The Lord of the Rings is a classic example of fantasy literature where there is this return to the status quo ante after the huge events. My way of thinking is: Much of science fiction assumes that there will never be a return to status quo ante after the events of the story. There is that in common between Accelerando and The Laundry Series. Although I am still quite a long way from getting to the end of The Laundry Series, and I’m not sure whether it’s technically the same genre as Accelerando. I do more than one type of fiction, and it does actually feel very different to me.
Did you plot out the whole series ahead of time? At what stage did you plot out the various books, and how far ahead are you currently plotted?
When I began writing it, circa 1999, I wrote a short novel called Atrocity Archive. Around 2000, I acquired a literary agent and sold my first novel, Singularity Sky, which came out from Ace in 2003. My agent and I were getting to know each other and I sent her the Accelerando stories and I also sent her Atrocity Archive. And her immediate reaction to Atrocity Archive was, “This is great fun, but it’s commercially not viable. It’s impossible to sell. Nobody will publish it. They won’t know what genre it is, to begin with. Is it horror? Is it humor? Is it a spy thriller? Is it SF? Is it fantasy?” So, for a while, it looked like it wasn’t actually going to be published at all. I managed to get it serialized in a short-lived, obscure Scottish SF magazine around 2002.
In 2003, a small American publisher, Golden Griffin, approached me for a book, and they wanted a bit more than just this short novel. So, I had a novella called “The Concrete Jungle,” and they published them together as The Atrocity Archives, the first book in the series. It looked for a while as if it was just going to be a one-off.
Then, something really, really weird happened. “The Concrete Jungle” got short-listed for a Hugo award. And then it won a Hugo award. Now, when that happened, my agent got interested suddenly and realized that there was a market for this. So we sorted out a deal whereby I would write a sequel to it. From there, it sort of snowballed.
Now, when you’ve written a paranormal spy thriller in the style of Len Deighton, if you want to do a sequel, there’s only one place to go, and that’s Ian Fleming. And I’m afraid I burned my brain out on Bond movies. I went through them back-to-back—about sixteen of them in four weeks—also rereading a bunch of the Bond novels and biographies of Ian Fleming. I actually had flow charts of the structure of the opening sequence in each Bond movie. At this point, I sort of dropped Case Nightmare Green in as a throwaway in “The Concrete Jungle,” the second novella of the series. I gradually began realizing that there has to be more than this.
So, the next book deal out, there’s a contract with another Laundry novel in it, and that one begins to riff off Case Nightmare Green explicitly. That was The Fuller Memorandum. By the time I’d got through The Fuller Memorandum, I knew what the next novel would be. By the time I got through The Apocalypse Codex, I knew a fair bit about The Rhesus Chart, and I’m now actually plotting about three or four books ahead. With an overall backbone to the series of, maybe, eight or nine central novels and a number of side branches off the tree, which, for something that was originally going to be a short novel on its own, and then at best maybe a trilogy, has just been growing.
What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way? I saw you posted on your Reddit Ask Me Anything—you said “I was staring down the barrel of a gun loaded with ‘How about we just cancel the series right now?’ and the quickest way to dodge the bullet was to write the next novel a year early.
Well, that’s one way to dodge the bullet. The reason for that cancellation was because, being a bit burned out at the time, I decided I needed a year away from having to write a novel. I’d been trying to write two novels a year for several years, and you will just burn out if you try and do that.
So, I brought together a short story collection called Wireless, and, as with any short story collection, the readers who’ve already read all your stories need an added incentive to look at it. So I sat down and began writing a novella, which was titled “Palimpsest,” about the time patrol police, because I hadn’t read a good time patrol novella in years and thought, “Well, hey! Nobody’s doing it, so why don’t I?” Anyway, because this was the one story in the collection that hadn’t been sold before, or published, or edited, I thought I should run it past my agent. Her reaction to it was pretty much electric. She said, “This is brilliant! It’s the first part of a novel. How about you write the rest of this novel, and I can send it in instead of that Laundry novel you were going to write, and you can cancel it?” And that’s when I sat down and wrote the Laundry novel in four weeks—four weeks at fourteen hours a day—because at that point I realized I was committed to the series. I hadn’t quite realized how serious I was about it before. And the irony is, “Palimpsest” won a Hugo award as well, and, sooner or later, I’m actually going to finish the novel of which it’s the first third. There’s another timeline in which I did finish the novel of “Palimpsest,” and the other Laundry novel never got written.
That brings us to the newest Laundry novel, which is The Rhesus Chart. Do you want to tell us about that?
Sure. I got bored doing tribute novels to British spy thriller authors. I’d gone through Len Deighton and Ian Fleming, Anthony Price and Peter O’Donnell, and I decided it was time to actually stop going after individual authors and go after themes. So, the next few Laundry novels are all about urban fantasy subgenres.
I’ve done a novella about unicorns—that’s “Equoid,” which is on the Hugo shortlist. The Rhesus Chart is a vampire novel. By way of background, I should mention that our narrator, Bob, is married. He’s about fortyish at this point in the series. He’s been aging one year for every year through the course of writing the books. And he’s married to Mo—Dominique O’Brian—whose job description is Combat Epistemologist. They’re out having dinner at a restaurant, and the book opens “‘Don’t be silly, Bob,’ said Mo, ‘Everybody knows vampires don’t exist.’” Well, yeah, you might think everybody knows vampires don’t exist, and we can be pretty sure they don’t—we don’t see big piles of dead bodies everywhere. But if vampires don’t exist, why are we all so certain they don’t exist? Could it be that there are vampires, there’s just very, very few of them and they’re very, very careful about covering up their tracks? The premise of The Rhesus Chart is, in the universe of the Laundry novels, there are various very, very quiet supernatural beings doing their best to keep out of the public gaze. Everybody around Bob is so convinced that vampires don’t exist, that Bob, being a contrarian, decides to go and prove that they don’t exist, or at least, set up an experiment whereby he will get five sigma accuracy to lack of signal for vampires. And, much to his surprise and gradual horror, he discovers that, unfortunately, he’s wrong.
It’s funny, because, in this book, Bob gets assigned—he has to do research on vampires, which consists of reading Brian Lumley, Anne Rice, Jim Butcher, and Laurell K. Hamilton. What’s your take on the state of vampire fiction, and those authors in particular?
Well, it did come out of a certain creeping affection, but the thing is, there’s been such a huge boom in vampire fiction. Now, it’s probably unfair for me to single them out, because . . . Let me rewind a little bit. Arguably, the modern vampire book dates to the late 1970s, An Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice. That was a classic of its form. Prior to that, there were isolated vampire novels, things like Salem’s Lot by Steven King, but they’re all very much in the tradition of a vampire as the adversary or monster. Interview with a Vampire was arguably the first one to get under the vampire’s skin and use the vampire as a sympathetic protagonist.
Then, we move forward a decade, and Laurell K. Hamilton pretty much single-handedly drags the vampire story, kicking and screaming, into what is now recognizable as the subgenre of paranormal romance. Here, the psycho-sexual symbolism of a vampire is changed, and rather than being a metaphor for disease or for rape, it’s used as a vehicle for exploring issues of consent, domination, and BDSM practices.
I decided to go in an entirely different direction in the Laundry books, which is epidemiology and parasitology. Although, to be fair, a similar field is being plowed by Mira Grant, or Seanan McGuire, as she’s really called, who’s been doing zombies and is now doing other parasites as a horror format, using much the same approach—let’s look at it from a medical standpoint . . . What was the question again?
Just Brian Lumley, Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher.
Yeah. The reason these authors get mentioned explicitly in The Rhesus Chart is because Bob has just been assigned a bunch of background reading by a committee, because, let’s face it, the first thing a civil service department does on discovering a hitherto unstudied phenomenon is establish a committee to investigate it, determine what is known about it, set standards for dealing with it. And, of course, vampires don’t exist, everybody knows vampires don’t exist, everybody is absolutely certain vampires don’t exist, and the people on the committee . . . Bob is the only one on the committee cleared for knowledge that vampires do, in fact, exist. It is considered secret at this point, and the others don’t take it terribly seriously, including the chair of the committee, who assigns him his reading matter, his homework, mostly to shut him up.
One thing that I thought was interesting about this book is that vampirism is not spread by being bitten or something like that, but by an epiphany, or something that you come to understand.
Actually, that’s a side effect of the way magic works in the Laundry universe. In this instance, I mentioned magic is a branch of mathematics. There are some people who are very talented practitioners or very effective mathematicians, who can actually carry out magical operations in their brains.
Most people, Bob included, usually go about it using a computer and setting up various bits of software applications to do the job for them. You really don’t want to go around messing with the apps on Bob’s smartphone if it falls into your possession. But in the case of the vampires in The Rhesus Chart, they’re part of a fairly high-powered programming scheme working on high-frequency trading algorithms within an investment bank. One of their members comes across an interesting visualization tool.
Now, I mentioned there are Lovecraftian horrors in this series. There’s a whole bunch of creatures out there who love nothing better than to chow down on an unprotected human brain. Think the wrong thoughts, and you can attract them. Vampirism is not so much an epiphany as something that latches onto you after you experience that epiphany. Let’s just say, vampirism is a particularly parasitic disease. Most sane people who succumb to vampirism just kill themselves, which is one reason why everyone knows vampires don’t exist. The only people who are willing to be a vampire and stay with the deal are pretty much psychopaths.
Speaking of that, there’s a character in this book, Oscar, who’s a corporate guy. He’s described as being an “apex predator sociopath.” I thought it was really interesting—I’ve heard you talk about how you predicted, in your Halting State series, that corporations would start intentionally recruiting sociopaths to work for them, and that actually has started to happen.
Well, I wouldn’t take Oscar too seriously, but I was doing a bit of reading at the time about the sociology of the high-end investment banking culture in the city of London, and it’s really quite terrifying. These are not people who should be trusted with a pair of scissors, frankly. Personality-wise, they’re very, very driven, very, very competitive, reasonably bright, fairly well-socialized for men brought up in a single-sex boarding school culture. They’re shoved into a pressure cooker, and they’re set to play a game for sixteen hours a day where the point scoring system they get is measured in how many millions of pounds their bonus payment is. And these people are running our economy! They’ve got so much money floating around the hedge funds that they operate that governments provide them with the playing field they desire, because they’re too terrified of scaring them away. Currently, the British revenue base—we still have an industrial sector, we still make satellites and cars and all sorts of stuff, but the investment banking sector accounts for a bigger share of GDP than manufacturing. I believe it’s the same in the United States. There is something very, very wrong when what is essentially a parasitic function, namely investment, becomes the largest component of the economy. And we’re back to parasites again.
In terms of evil business practices, there’s this really funny line in the book about how Bob doesn’t want to use a Kindle, because he says there are scary implications—darker, esoteric implications—to spending too much time staring at a device controlled by a secretive billionaire in Seattle.
Well, yeah. Don’t get me started on Amazon. I’m a novelist. I’m published by Hachette. My books have been blocked and blacklisted by Amazon on multiple occasions. I’m not bitter. I just got my own back in fiction.
But people could go check out your blog post, “Amazon: Malignant Monopoly or Just Plain Evil?”
Absolutely. Also, I did a blog entry a couple of years back on understanding or deconstructing Amazon’s business model. Most people are a bit wonkish about the economics of how it works and what Amazon is trying to accomplish. Let’s just say, they want to be a monopoly as much as Google or Facebook want to be a monopoly, and if they get their way, it’s going to be a pretty scary contingency, because the internet as we know it will no longer exist.
Since these are spy thriller books, I think one of the biggest things you have to take into consideration is the Edward Snowden case and all the revelations that have come out about the NSA spying on citizens. How has that affected the ecosystem for writing spy thriller novels?
It’s probably having a deeply insidious effect. It will take longer to work its way though than the collapse of the Soviet Union, but be even more shattering. For a couple of years after 1989, there were a queue of already-sold techno-thrillers of the plot about World War Three in Europe through the Soviet Union and NATO. You can just see the authors tearing their hair out as the books come rolling out two years after the Warsaw Pact collapsed. You can imagine how their sales stunk. I think we may be seeing a much more subtle effect on the spy thriller today from the Snowden revelations.
What has happened is a massively eroded public faith in not merely the ability to function of the security services, but their very reason for existing. Now, I began writing the Laundry series in 1999, and back then, the whole Snowden thing wasn’t even on the radar, nor was 9/11 on the radar. In mid 2001, I handed the manuscript of The Atrocity Archives to my editor at this small, Scottish SF magazine, Spectrum SF, and he worked on editing it, and then in November 2001, I got an email from him, saying, “You know, Charlie, I know you’re looking for a bunch of mad terrorists who are going to attack the United States and summon up something really horrible in Santa Cruz, California, but do you think you could find somebody a bit more obscure than Osama Bin Ladin and Al Qaeda?” I’d gone looking for crazies who were likely to attack the United States in 1999, and who was at the top of the list but Al Qaeda? And yet, it was totally unforeseeable that two years later they would be so well recognized and infamous everywhere.
The same sort of thing has happened with the Snowden revelations, and confirmation of what a lot of people suspected all along about the scope of bugging by the NSA, or their British equivalent, the GCHQ. This stuff has been suspected by professional paranoids for decades. It’s just that it’s now coming out in the public domain, and everybody’s seeing smoking guns on every mantelpiece and seeing confirmation. Now, I’m not sure how to actually address this in the Laundry series yet—I’m still digesting it. What I can say is I’m working on a different near-future techno-thriller/spy-thriller trilogy set in my Merchant Princes universe, with publication in about a year to eighteen months, that is my definitive post-Edward Snowden spy thriller, but that’s not really the subject of this podcast interview.
Actually, I do want to talk about those books a little bit, but before we get to that, on this subject, you had a blog post about why there won’t be a third Halting State book, because stuff you were predicting keeps coming true.
Not so much “it keeps coming true.” The real reason there isn’t going to be one now—oh, okay. Shortly after I wrote that blog entry, I had a blinding flash of light, a moment of revelation, and the plot for the third Halting State book landed in my brain. So much for saying “I’m not gonna write one.”
However, there’s a different reason for not writing one at present, which is what I describe to people as the Scottish Political Singularity. At this point, Scotland is going through a political singularity. So, the current Halting State will basically be shelved for a couple of years, until the dust has settled.
You previously had to shelve a concept for a third Halting State book because it turned out the NSA was spying on World of Warcraft players.
No, not quite. What happened was I postponed the second book in the series for a year in a half, because I was about to start writing in 2007, when the banking system went crazy. The original plot for that novel, which came out of Rule 34, it was originally going to be titled 419 and it was about the world’s largest Nigerian advanced defraud. A bunch of scammers were basically going to steal from the World Bank, the European Union, the US Treasury—a sum roughly on the order of $20–$30 billion—by faking the existence of an entire central Asian republic.
Then, the banking system goes sideways and from the wreckage crawls Bernie Madoff, and everybody wants to know where the $50 billion he’s stolen has gone. Bernie Madoff basically blew away that cloth. At that point, I just could not write that book anymore. A different one surfaced instead.
It is very, very difficult, trying to write plausible near-future science fiction, within fifteen years of the present day. The problem is that the world we live in is undergoing really weird convulsions every couple of years. Also, the near future . . . You’re going to recognize that it’s ninety percent intimately familiar. Ninety percent of the buildings are there—we’re living in them. Ninety percent of the cars are already on the road. Ninety percent of the people are alive. About nine percent of it is new, but predictable. We can look at various plans on file with city authorities—what skyscrapers are going up in the next couple of years. We can look at Intel’s road map to see where their chips are going to be in five years. And then there’s the one percent that nobody can predict, because it’s just too blindingly weird.
Nobody in 2000 was predicting 9/11. Nobody in 1990 was seriously predicting universal uptake of the World Wide Web. Everybody around 2004 was thinking smartphones were the way forward, but the idea that Apple would be the dominant player in that space, that they’d have these huge, high-resolution screens linked to the sum total of human knowledge, and that we’d be using them to watch silly cat videos—it would not make any kind of sense in any kind of realistic near-future prediction anyone could make. So, writing near-future SF has almost become a dying art. There’s very few people doing it these days. And, if I seem to falter or throw my hands up in despair every so often and just say “No, I can’t go there,” it’s because it is actually quite a hard game to do.
You mentioned that these upcoming Merchant Prince books are going to be your definitive statement—or at least, your latest statement—on the Edward Snowden situation. Do you want to talk about what the latest news is with that series?
The previous series was set in 2002 to 2003, and it started out . . . It was actually a bait-and-switch. It started out looking like a secondary world fantasy—a portal fantasy—where a person from our world finds themselves in a fantasy land and tried to make a path for themselves, only rather than playing it as fantasy, I played it as science fiction, particularly in the realist mode.
Our protagonist finds herself in a quasi-medieval setting, and does not particularly wish to succumb to the fate that is common to women living in a crapsack world medieval setting, so she tries to disrupt it. Unfortunately, she succeeds, and when you disrupt something, it has consequences, some of which are pretty damn unpleasant. By book six, or book three of the new, revised omnibus edition, large numbers of mushroom clouds are floating around, because one of the side-effects of economic disruption is she accidentally starts a couple of nuclear wars, by not realizing just how much is at stake.
Now, the new series picks up the thread about seventeen years later, in a couple of different timelines. On the one hand, we have the United States that was traumatized in 2003, when the Bush White House was nuked by extradimensional narco-terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security in this universe has pretty much turned the US into a police state. They’ve been given responsibility for protecting the nation from threats from all possible parallel universes, and we’re talking a level of surveillance in everyday life that is at least on a par with what you get in any given airline concourse these days. Don’t even ask what happens at airports.
And they are indeed becoming quite worried, because they know that the Merchant Princes, the narco-terrorists who can travel between timelines, some of them are still out there. They know there may be other civilizations out there. They’re afraid of what will happen if they make contact with another para-time-capable civilization who learn how they dealt with the first people they met, namely, lots of B-52s.
Over the course of this trilogy, the sum of all fears is going to happen. They’re gonna make contact with another para-time-capable North American superpower, only it’s not called The United States of America. I don’t want to give too much away about it, except that, well, post-Edward Snowden, it’s about the tension between omniscient surveillance and actual, real security, which is not the same thing at all.
Back in Episode Sixty-One, we interviewed Paul Krugman, and he really had a lot of great things to say about the economics in that series. Are the new books going to deal with economics, too, or is it going to be more to do with the politics and espionage sort of stuff?
There are economic issues in it, but they’re very much backgrounded. The problem is, I’ve spent so many years noodling around with the ideas of this series in my head that trying to cram everything into a trilogy of relatively short books—basically, something the size of a single Neal Stephenson doorstop—is forcing me to skimp on some of the fine details I worked out. On the other hand, we’ve got a term for that in science fiction, it’s called “Here. I’ve done all my homework. Now you can suffer for my art.” I’m not going to force the readers to suffer through it just for that.
When we interviewed Paul Krugman, he talked about how you did a panel together at WorldCon. I was curious if you’ve kept in touch at all or . . .
Not with any great frequency. We’ve seen each other occasionally, but that’s about it. He’s a very, very busy man, and I live somewhere that’s fairly remote in travel terms.
One thing that really interested me about the Merchant Princes series is the basic premise of characters who can walk between parallel worlds is sort of inspired by Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. I saw you say on Reddit that if you could hang out for a day with a deceased science fiction author, you would choose Roger Zelazny. It’s actually who I would choose as well. Could you say why that would be your choice?
Zelazny was a master stylist. He raised the bar for a lot of people trying to write science fiction in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s. He was still writing cutting-edge material right up to his untimely death due to lung cancer. He wasn’t very old when he died, and it just seems like missed opportunity to me. I did actually have an opportunity to do dinner with him once, for a convention committee in 1989, and didn’t make the effort to get to town at that time, and it was about six months later that he died of lung cancer. So there is an element of personal nostalgia there for roads not taken. But also, I believe he’d be quite a fascinating guy to talk to.
Just imagine what he would have to say about all the new media and the stuff that’s happened since 1996.
Well, for that, you’d have to posit he was keeping up to date on it. One thing to bear in mind is, by now, he’d be in his sixties to seventies, and, as Douglas Adams put it, “Any technology that existed when I was born has been there forever. Anything that comes along before you’re thirty-six is new and fascinating and important and useful. Anything invented after you’re thirty-six is new, incomprehensible, and annoying.”
There’s a Laundry pen-and-paper role-playing game. I was wondering what your experience with that has been. Have players told you stories about things that have happened to them in the game?
I try to keep it at arm’s length to some extent, because I believe it has developed some sort of subculture and fandom. I don’t want to run the risk of meddling in something that I don’t, myself, play, and disrupting other people’s scenarios or gameplay, and at the same time, I don’t want to run the risk of being accused of plagiarism from other people’s ideas. So, it’s something I try to keep a reasonable distance from. I stay in touch with Cubicle 7, who writes the games, to make sure that they’re up-to-date about what I’m planning with the series and where I’m going to take it, but I don’t want to tread on their toes too hard.
You did used to be pretty involved in role-playing games, right? I saw that you wrote some of the monsters for the Fiend Folio.
In my mid-teens. I haven’t really been a role-player since I was about twenty, and that’s more decades ago than I care to think about.
It said that you added the githyanki to the Fiend Folio, which was based on George R. R. Martin’s Dying of the Light novel.
That was actually a throwaway of his, as far as I can tell, in his first novel from the mid-seventies. You’re going back a long way, here.
Sorry, but what was the connection between his novel and the . . .
I basically took the name and ran with it for this species of extra-temporal alien horrors for Dungeons and Dragons back in the day. In the late seventies. I was looking for a name, and George R. R. Martin has always been pretty good with names.
But, you’re saying, in that novel it doesn’t really flesh out what they are—that you basically just took the name.
I took the name, yes, rather than any detail.
Speaking of George R. R. Martin, on Twitter, @nottimothy asks you, “How’s it feel playing George R. R. Martin with your characters?”
It feels good. Basically, when you have too many characters in a serious story arc, if you kill a whole bunch of them off, it does two things. Firstly, it makes your job as a writer much, much easier. You’ve got less stuff to keep track of. Secondly, it keeps the readers on their toes and emotionally engaged. They can never be too certain that the hero or heroine they’re rooting for is still going to be alive in the next book. Now, it’s a card you’ve got to play very carefully. Absolutely never kill off a major character without at least thinking through the consequences, and also how the readers will respond to it. But there are times when it is necessary in a series, and in particular—I shouldn’t give any spoilers away, but it would probably be fair to describe the climax of The Rhesus Chart as being the Laundry series’ Red Wedding.
We actually have a bunch of Twitter questions for you, not all of which I understand.
This one is from Chip Salzenberg. He says, “Does Bob Howard use Perl?”
I think Bob Howard is recent enough to use Python instead. There’s your answer.
Okay. William @phenidone says, “Is Turing completeness a sufficient condition for possession? What about a Magic: the Gathering card deck? Cue Alanis Morissette.”
Yup. Turing completeness is sufficient, and thereon probably hangs another Laundry series story or two.
I’m not sure that this makes sense to people who haven’t read the books.
It probably doesn’t. The books have a very, very geeky audience.
Yeah. Well, I guess people will just have to read the books if they want to understand.
Something you haven’t mentioned at all in The Rhesus Chart is a really, really extended series of set piece jokes all about a programming/software engineering methodology called Scrum Programming, which I think most non-programmers have missed. Those people who’ve been involved in Scrum seem to read the whole thing rolling on the floor laughing.
Adam Shea asks—this might be a spoiler, I don’t know—“Is Howard still susceptible to K Syndrome, and is Howard still human, or is he more hungry ghost + meat puppet now?”
That’s a spoiler.
Yeah, I figured. Back in Episode 106, we interviewed Karl Schroeder. He was talking about all the potential applications of block chain technology—the technology behind bitcoin. I know that you wrote a very anti-bitcoin blog post, and I was just wondering if you were familiar with the kind of stuff that he was talking about, and what you think of it.
My position on bitcoin isn’t about crypto-currencies per se, or about the block chain technology. It’s about the ideology implicit in the way bitcoin has been implemented, which looks to me as if it was designed by Libertarians with the goal of undermining conventional currencies, which have an intimate, deep-rooted relationship with the nation-state itself. It looks like a system that was designed to corrode the primary economy, and, in many respects, make it difficult to tax. That’s the problem I’ve got with bitcoin. I am not, shall we say, an anti-statist anarchist.
Karl was talking about how smart contracts using the block-chain technology might be replacing lawyers within a matter of months. Do you have any opinions on that kind of thing?
I think that’s a little bit optimistic. I think that lawyers are going be here for a very long time to come. That’s not to say that they’re not being automated and their numbers are reduced in many ways. The demand for the individual numbers of lawyers is dropping like a stone, because a lot of the jobs that used to go to newly qualified lawyers—research jobs in law libraries—are now being automated thanks to searching. But that doesn’t mean that actual practicing lawyers who do stuff in court and deal in contracts are going away. The future of law is an interesting question.
How about the future of the Laundry Files series? I see the next two books are The Armageddon Score and The Nightmare Stacks. You want to tell us about those?
Change of title. It will be The Annihilation Score, and we still haven’t worked out the title for the seventh book. I probably shouldn’t say too much about them, except that they will be coming out next July and the July after. The series is going annual for now.
I guess someone needs to update Wikipedia on that one. Why did you change the title for The Armageddon Score?
Okay, this is going to sound really silly, but one of my editors is hip to search engine optimization and the web, and it turns out that if you google “Armageddon Score,” you come up with a lot of links to the soundtrack to a Bruce Willis movie. Unfortunately, Bruce Willis is probably more famous than I’ll ever be, so we decided the best way to avoid a namespace collision with Bruce Willis is not to go there to begin with. So, new title needed.
I’ve heard you say online what perspective those books are going to be written from. Is that something you want to talk about, or . . . ?
Oh yeah! All the Laundry book up until this point have been narrated by Bob, who is a famously unreliable narrator. He’s a bit self-serving, a bit self-deceiving. What Bob tells you is not necessarily true; it’s just the way Bob sees it. The next novel, The Annihilation Score, is going to be told by Mo, Bob’s wife of about a decade. Her view on Bob will hopefully be a bit of an eye-opener for those readers who’ve been taking what Bob says at face value. As for the novel after that, I shouldn’t say too much about it, except that my current plans are that it’ll be narrated by a guy called Alex, who shows up for the first time in The Rhesus Chart, and funnily enough, he’s the sort of guy who gets a really, really, really bad sunburn if he goes out without a burka in daylight.
That does it for the questions. Are there any new or upcoming projects or anything you want to mention?
Right now, no, because I am currently juggling finishing a Merchant Princes trilogy and two more Laundry novels. I’m taking a rain check on new projects until I’ve actually got these under control, although who knows what the future will bring?
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