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How I got here in the end, part twelve: the end of the beginning

The cyberpunk lifestyle reads a whole lot better in fiction than as a lifestyle manifesto. Take it from someone who's lived through it.

Picture this: you're a former drug dealer who has turned to hacking for a living. You're crashing in an apartment a bit older than Texas, surrounded by about seventeen computers, sleeping on a futon with a girlfriend with metre-long purple dreadlocks, and planning your defection from one net-based futuristic corporation to another over Korean take-away food. It sounds like something out of an early story by William Gibson, but the reality is a whole lot less glamorous. I've been there; I speak from experience. Cyberpunk is so nineteen-nineties: as a lifestyle statement it leaves something to be desired. Given that the late seventies and early eighties are the height of fashion right now, I reckon we're about fifteen years away from the inevitable revival — I'll be there, doddering around on a Zimmer frame and waving my fist at those young punks who've never used a command line interface.

But I digress ...

Back in March 2000, I became aware that I had a certain problem: which was that I'd resigned from my previous job with extreme prejudice just as the company I was about to join crashed and burned in the middle of an industry-wide conflagration. However, I had an ace up my sleeve.

Back in 1998, Jeremy Spencer had asked me to write a monthly magazine column for Computer Shopper, then the #2 or #3 top-selling monthly news-stand computer magazine in the UK. Shopper explicitly targeted the geek audience with a series of specialist columns, because geeks are loyal (and besides, Personal Computer World had abandoned the field in favour of glossy VNU-isms). If you can attract a loyal subscription audience you can jack up the all-important ABC circulation figures, which in turn allows you to charge more for advertising. Shopper was about 20% editorial content to 80% advertising, and the advertising paid about 90% of the turnover of the magazine — but without the editorial content, there would be nothing with which to attract the subscribers, and without the subscribers, no advertising. The casual news-stand readers would buy a couple of issues of the mag while they were looking for a new PC — usually a once every 2-3 years occurrence. But the subscribers ... they were gold dust. And so Jeremy pandered shamelessly to their desire for intelligent columns on minority platforms like Archimedes, or Linux. I was to be Shopper's Linux columnist for the next five and a half years.

Here's a hint if you're planning a career as a writer: magazine columns in news-stand monthlies pay (or paid back then — this was before the web cannibalised print publishing) one hell of a lot more than the major SF magazines. On a per-word basis, they paid more than novels (unless your name was Terry Pratchett). My three pages a month weren't enough to live on, but it covered the mortgage ... and it left me time to find more work.

Summer 2000 was the year when three Linux news-stand magazines started up in the UK, and I was all over them like a flea at a dog show. I'm not proud: I touted for work. At Shopper, I began landing regular 4-5 page monthly features. At Linux User I wrote anything up to 20% of the magazine's content, and I got my toes under the table at Future Publishing's Linux Format with a monthly slot for a Perl tutorial. By the time my notice period with Datacash expired in early June, I had established a regular magazine workload that was to entirely fill the gap left by my day job (once the invoices began coming out of the payment pipeline).

I was also talking to a couple of small book publishers around this time. First, there was Cosmos Books, a small print-on-demand outfit run by Sean Wallace as a component of Wildside Press. Sean got in touch with me first: I'd begun attracting some attention with my short stories (both "Antibodies" and "A Colder War" had been republished by Gardner Dozois in his state-of-the-SF-universe essays in the two preceeding Years Best SF anthologies). Would I be interested in bolting together a short story collection? He couldn't offer an advance, but was willing to cough up a reasonable royalty rate. I thought for a while, then said "yes"; the result, published in 2001, was the collection "Toast". As a parenthetical note, the received wisdom in the genre publishing world is that short story collections aren't profitable: it took many more years before I could publish one through a major publisher. For a newbie with no novels in print, a no-advance deal from Cosmos Books was par for the course.

And then there was Ben Jeapes and Big Engine. Back when I'd been living in London and working for SCO, Ben and I were members of the same writers workshop, regularly bouncing stories off each other. Ben worked in academic publishing; around the time I was joining Datacash, he was founding his own start-up, a specialist SF publishing house called Big Engine. We were chatting over a beer in the bar of the Central Hotel in Glasgow over easter weekend, catching up on old times: it was the venue of the annual British easter SF convention, the main hub around which British fandom revolved, and that particular year the program items were not terribly interesting to fans of the written form. "So what are you doing now?" Ben asked.

To cut a long story short — the wheels of publishing grind slow — about six months later Ben mailed me a contract for "Festival of Fools". And at that point I manufactured the best bit of good luck I've ever had in my whole writing career: I managed to hook up with an extremely smart literary agent so early in her career that I was pretty much her first customer.

(This is my tech bio, not my writing bio, so I'm not going to explain that here. Let's just say that I'd previously had terrible luck with agents, but third time round was the lucky charm.)

Caitlin vetted the contract with Big Engine, which was duly signed — then sold the rights to both "Festival of Fools" and a sequel to be called "Iron Sunrise" to Ace. Who promptly re-titled it "Singularity Sky", and coughed up a handsome hardcover print run on the strength of "Lobsters" being nominated for a Hugo award in 2001.

All this lay in the future, however. All I knew in 2000 was that I had a short story collection coming out the next year from a small press, another small press wanted to buy my first SF novel, and a small Scottish SF magazine was thinking about serializing "The Atrocity Archive". Back then, I was racing to keep the wolf from the door by writing about 15,000 words of magazine features each month — the equivalent of two novels a year. And I was still talking to Andrew Veitch, former CEO of NSL Internet, whose failed IPO had shoved me into the full-time freelance writing gig ...

Andrew's dot-com had bombed, but he had ideas about startups. He knew colocation; I knew Linux (I'd been living and breathing it for five years). In particular, I'd been keeping an eye on a new field — virtualization. Server virtualization is commonplace in the PC world today; a bunch of hypervisors, from VMWare Fusion through VirtualBox, let you boot a guest copy of Linux or Windows or Mac OS X "inside" another operating system. But in 2000, most folks outside of mainframe land hadn't heard of it. IBM's big iron had virtualization since 1972 or thereabouts — indeed, most of their business-oriented operating systems were designed around the idea: VM/CMS for example used the VM environment to manage the mainframe, while individual users logged into separate CMS sessions to do their work.

IBM in 2000 was a very different company from the IBM whose 1980 staff handbook had driven me to flee screaming from SCO. They'd just brought out software patches for Linux that allowed it to run as a guest session on their mainframes, under an operating system called zVM, a descendant of VM optimised for the zSeries mainframes. This was heavy stuff: totally sandboxed Linux sessions that thought they had an entire mainframe to themselves. A zSeries machine could shoulder tens of thousands of Linux sessions simultaneously. Andrew had done collocation, I'd done Linux: why not set up an ISP to sell virtualized collocated Linux servers? Shades of what Demon Internet had done for dial-up, only for collocated servers. We did some math, and worked out that if we started on the cheap and used second-hand kit we could make it break even on a tenner a month, and make it profitable for £25 a month.

Alas, start-up plans take a back seat to earning a living. Andrew was doing consultancy work for Scottish Enterprise; I was writing flat-out for magazines and polishing my first novel for publication. This meant that our planning ran at a snail's pace. We began talking about it in late 2000. By summer 2001, we had our business plan and our proposals and our business cards printed. We'd bought an off-the-shelf shell company, zHosting Ltd. All we needed was £600,000 and a second-hand mainframe to install in a hosting centre like SCOLocate. So we booked our first meeting with IBM to discuss leasing options, and our first session with possible angel investors ...

On September 12th, 2001.

So there you have it: the punchline to the extended shaggy dog story that is my career history in the computer industry. And now you know why I'm a novelist rather than the chief technical officer of a successful dot-com. Timing is everything — and my whole non-writing career has been one damn comic double-take after another.

That meeting was ... well, the subject of conversation was rather overshadowed by the events of the previous day. NASDAQ was closed, air travel in North America was shut down: the hammer was about to come crashing down on the tech sector for the second time in two years. We buried zHosting outside the graveyard gate only a month later, and went our respective ways; Andrew back to consultancy for a couple of years (he's now running a successful bespoke software business), and me to writing.

It was probably the best outcome. I was beginning to get an odd feeling every time I opened my inbox: people were asking me to write stories, I had an aggressive, effective literary agent marketing my books, and a major New York publisher had bought two of them. It was a very odd feeling, a sense of standing on the threshold of something I'd been daydreaming about for twenty years. One of my stories was (I kept rubbing my eyes with astonishment) on the shortlist for the Hugo award, the Oscars of the written SF field! I was finally earning a living as a freelance writer, although it wouldn't be until 2004 that the income from fiction exceeded the income from magazine feature writing. The question finally began to dawn on me: why would I want a real job? And then I realized: I already had one.

(The End — of the beginning.)

36 Comments

1:

Stands up and applauds.

2:

Excellent write-up. As a new follower of your work, it sheds some light on where you pick up your perspectives. As a current and former start-up person, I was wondering ...

You should concatenate these and link them on your website as an extended bio.

Keep up the good work!
Peripatetic Entrepreneur

3:

Sep 12!
I nearly snorted red wine all over my keyboard.

Thanks for 'shaggy dog' story

4:

Who is playing you in the film version? Excellent stuff.

5:

Bravo! Great story-telling, and a perfect close.

6:

Great stuff, more please.

7:

Thank you! This has been fascinating. I've had an email address since 1988, and have watched a lot of this stuff happen, but as a disinterested observer mostly focused on other things. The internet was always a tool rather than an end in itself. The insider perspective of what was going on during those years has been quite informative.

I probably read quite a few of your linux columns at the time.

8:

You had great luck getting Antibodies and A Colder War into Gardner Dozoi's anthologies. That's where I first read your stuff, and instantly knew this was an author I wanted more from. Sir, I salute you!

9:

This has been a wonderful tale to read, thank you !
I never guessd you were so deep into programming and linux, I'm almost tempted to reread yourstories again with that new viewpoint in my head.

Do you still dabble in scripting, linux and such or do you follow things more from the sideline nowadays ?

10:

*applause*

Thank you for a thoroughly entertaining read.

Really looking forward to the writing bio.

11:

In the last episode, no-one bought "Lobsters". In this one, it was nominated for a Hugo. Who was the sensible person who actually bought it?

12:

Want to make a post with a link to all of them in order? That'd make it easier to point people at them...

13:

I have a similar tale about Sept 11th 2001. At that time, I was working for a small IT company in Edinburgh, not too far from where you live, which made software for ATMs and internet kiosks. On the evening of Sept 10th, I mailed a proposal for a project that would have significantly developed a prototype application that we had made for Amex. The prototype was running on a single kiosk at a high-visibility site, namely the foyer of the World Trade Centre in New York.

Less than 12 hours later, this project was one (very minor) casualty of the terrorist attack. Within a year, the company downsized and I was looking for another job.

14:

So in a way, we can thank Osama bin L. for starting your career.

It was the day he immanentized the Eschaton stories.

15:

These have been great, very entertaining/interesting.

They've also had the effect of making me kick myself harder than usual for never having learned more then a little BASIC and Logo (mid-80s from a teacher who somewhat resembled that old picture of Charlie that LOGIN used a few weeks ago, except shorter). Unfortunately I've never been good at math, and back then programming looked like math to me.

16:

JamesPadraicR: Back in '73 or so, my junior high Physics teacher convinced the administration to bring in a teletype so his class could do two weeks of BASIC programming. In those two weeks I found out that I was good at making computers do things, and that it was fun, and that's shaped the last 36 years of my life. And... shit. I just Googled for him and discovered that he died a few years ago, so I don't get to tell him that.

17:

Reading these has been awesome, and I've had a weird feeling of deja vu many times from the odd parallels with some of my own Adventures In Tech. I know some of my friends have had the privilege of sitting down for a pint with you, I hope I have the pleasure as well someday.

(I started reading Saturn's Children yesterday, very much enjoying it. If I didn't have to go to work I would've just kept reading.)

18:

turn it into a autobiography and you've easily got the 2nd best author autobiography of all time. After Stephen King's On Writing... that's one scary horror story.

19:

>>(This is my tech bio, not my writing bio, so I'm not going to explain that here. Let's just say that I'd previously had terrible luck with agents, but third time round was the lucky charm.)

This has been such a great read, but I hope you'll elaborate at some point on the writing bio side of things as well! Would love to read that.

20:

Steve: I'm currently actively in the middle of my writing career, and obviously some aspects of it are confidential/private. I initially wrote up this final chapter with a bunch more information in it ... but then decided to redact the stuff that touches on anyone I currently work with. (It's a small industry, folks have long memories, and I am not going to shit in the bathtub.)

Maybe at some future point I'll write up my writing bio -- but not yet.

21:

If you're ever tempted to re-write this story, the first two paragraphs of this section would be the logical opening.

Many thanks for this.

22:

Cyberpunk is so nineteen-nineties

Indeed, as Bruce Sterling says in the introduction to Tomorrow Now:

Cyberpunk involved a lyrical statement of the unthinkable (in the mid-1980s): that someday there would be a world rather like the late 1990s. When the late nineties indeed arrived, cyberpunk was not "predictive" — it was clichéd.

23:

Thanks for a another great story, Charlie! I've been a fan since first reading you in Asimov's (lobster's way back before it became Accelerando). I just finished the Atrocity Archives and loved it! I'm on my way to Borders for the Jennifer Morgue tomorrow. Keep up the great work.

24:

I suppose it's a little late to respond, but anyhow;

Clifton @16, My one computer class was in 9th grade at a brand new middle school in a rural-ish Colorado school district (where I'd just moved to). The class lasted one quarter. What little I learned was on an Apple IIe, at home I had an Atari 800, I don't know if any of it would've crossed over, if it had I probably would have kept up with it more.

The next year I went to the high school, the only computer they had was for the office secretary. I ended up in a typing class.

25:

I'm simply happy that you got here. Everything else is interesting.

When are you coming back to Portland (OR-US)?

Rick York

26:

"You had great luck getting Antibodies and A Colder War into Gardner Dozoi's anthologies."

A better way of stating this is that Gardner has excellent taste and perceptivity and this is why he's been one of the best editors the field has ever had.

27:

Scalzi's books are definitely hazardous to one's sleep budget. :)

28:

Charlie's books are pretty damned devastating, too.

(On more than one occasion I've had a new book arrive while I was at work, opened it after teatime, then realised that (a) it's gone dark outside and (b) the wall clock says 03:30...)

The short story collections are not too bad in this regard - I tend to look at the clock after each story, but the full length stuff (_all_ of it) is a severe hazard to sleep patterns.

Chris.

29:

Rick: I was in Portland back in May. Might be back some time next year ... but it's looking like my big travel plans for 2010 involve Japan and Australia rather than North America.

30:

Goodness. Didn't you claim to have a poor memory?

31:

*** More applause. ***

That was a fascinating story and very well told. So you were one of the writers who got me buying Computer Shopper. You were clearly good then, but I am most grateful for what you have moved on to.

32:

Joseph @30: yes, I do have a poor memory; there's lots of stuff missing from this.

33:

Excellent wrap-up to a brilliant bio. Thanks, Charlie! Unrelated but important *grin* -- enjoying the heck out of "Wireless" already; it's great to have even the stories I've read before all gathered together, and I'm saving Palimpsest as my special treat!

34:

re: Who plays Charlie in the movie. I'd like to nominate Tom Hanks. I've never met either Charlie or Tom, but Mr. Hanks' movie personna matches my "mental movie" when I read Charlie's stuff.

Thanks for taking the time, Charlie. It definitely works hard to move you from a personality to a person and I've always thought that sort of thing enhanced an author's work.

35:

#16
One of my better college professors died a few years back, way too young - he was still in his 60s. I've heard rumors he was the inspiration for one of the mid-80s movie evil-mad-scientist-professors, but I sure wouldn't swear to it. On the other hand, his homework problems were pretty challenging. (One assignment that was the same in both Basic and Pascal; the resulting code was quite different in the two languages, but solved the problem as given.) His compiler design class was part of what killed my college career; it was a challenge even to the best students, and one classmate achieved notoriety by breaking the compiler-testing program with a special case that had been missed.

36:

Great read. Thanks Charlie.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on July 8, 2009 5:24 PM.

How I got here in the end, part eleven: the music stops was the previous entry in this blog.

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