Charlie's Diary

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Thu, 25 Dec 2003

The work is done

I don't have enough energy to write about this at length yet ...

Back in mid-1999, life was stressful. I was lead programmer on the server development side of a dot-com that was experiencing business growth of 30% per month. I had a to-do list years long, a standing order for ten minions (who would turn up far too late to be helpful, at least at the time), and a job that involved grappling with web services at one end and the arcane guts of the British credit card clearing system at the other. (If acronyms like APACS, X.25, RID and TID mean anything to you, you have my deepest sympathies.)

Pressure does odd things to you. Sometimes you crack; and sometimes you find a way out. My way out was a novelette called "Lobsters", which exuded lots of the high-pressure weirdness of my day to day life on the sharp edge during the peak of the dot-com frenzy. "Lobsters" was a breakthrough story for me. It ended up coming out in the June 2000 issue of Asimov's SF Magazine, was shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula and Sturgeon awards (losing in each category to Ted Chiang's Hell is the Absence of God -- one of those once-a-decade stories that scoops the awards and makes everyone else green with envy), and drawing quite a bit of attention.

Well, the ending of "Lobsters" seemed to demand a sequel, so I sat down a few months later to write "Troubadour" -- and realised halfway through it that actually I was writing a novel, in nine episodes spaced out across a century of subjective time. Each group of three novelettes would study one generation of a dysfunctional family, living through a period of rapidly accelerating technological change -- a Vingean singularity.

(Oh yeah. Did I mention that the conventional wisdom in interested circles, since Professor Vinge coined the term, is that it's impossible to successfully treat this topic in SF? There's nothing like biting off more than anyone believes it's possible to chew ...)

The compressed time frame brings its own challenges to a novel, too. Back in the 1980's, Bruce Sterling wrote a brief series of hyper-compressed short stories set in the not too distant future, and a hauntingly evocative novel called Schismatrix. Pseudonymous reviewer Vincent Omniaveritas (actually Bruce himself) writing in the cyberpunk ideology critzine Cheap Truth summarized it thus: "boils down the three-percent beer of space opera into a jolting postmodern whiskey." Which is all very well, but if you grab a pint glass full of whiskey and try to chug it you'll end up spraying everywhere if you're not lucky. "Cheap Truth" was the clarion call of the cyberpunk generation of the 80's; now twenty years in the past, cyberpunk imagery is so mainstream that it shows up in night clubs, second-rate knock-offs of "The Matrix", and dot-com boardrooms. Being stoned on my own hubris it seemed entirely appropriate to steal Chairman Bruce's clothes and try to turn out a novel in the form of a series of compressed, linked stories that distilled the three percent beer of cyberpunk into something you could use as fuel in a Zippo lighter. I'd say each episode in "Accelerando" contains about half the hard-SF idea quotient of a normal novel. At least, each one of these nine chapters left me feeling as wrung-out as if I'd written half a book.

I said this was a case of biting off more than anyone could reasonably expect to chew, and I was right. Writing those stories was hard work; in the middle of #6 I actually took some time off to write a 195,000 word fantasy novel because it was easier. On the other hand, hard work brings its own rewards. In the case of "Accelerando", the first five stories have picked up two Hugo, one Nebula, one Sturgeon and one BSFA award nomination; the other stories haven't been out long enough for the annual award cycle to tick round, but I live in hope. Meanwhile, my agent sold "Accelerando" (as a novel) to Ace, who should be publishing it in July 2005. The novel will be somewhat different from the stories -- for one thing, it's all joined-up -- but it's the same essential concept. Three generations, one singularity, massive social and technological and cultural change, to such an extent that each successive generation is almost a different species from its predecessor. (They think differently -- one of the traditional blind spots of the early cyberpunk obsession with brain implants and "jacking in" to the net, seemingly without asking any of the deeper questions about what this means for the nature of intelligence.)

Anyway. Today is Christmas day, 2003, and after four and a half years I have just finished the first draft of the final chunk of "Accelerando", which sort of ties everything up -- or at least the most important pieces -- and brings that particular story to a close. The outline of the novel is now more or less clear to me, although there's some significant restructuring and a bunch of additions to be applied to it before I can send it to my editor at Ace. (Those of you reading the installments in Asimov's should -- I hope -- get to see the last chunk a bit sooner, assuming Gardner Dozois likes it as much as the previous eight pieces he's bought.)

Meanwhile, I'm feeling a little bit giddy. "Accelerando" currently tops off at 140,000 words, but while I have been writing it I have written -- and sold -- another 620,000 words of fiction (including five other novels and a fistfull of novellas and stories). The world has moved on, not entirely along the trajectory I expected, but not too far off course either. There is already a sort-of companion novel, "Glasshouse", set in the same universe as "Accelerando" (but some centuries later), written and due out from Ace the year after. But for now it's time for me to (a) blow off steam, and (b) take stock.

Where the hell do I go from here?

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posted at: 11:38 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
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December 2005
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December 2003
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July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
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June 2002
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March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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