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Books I've written

I periodically run out of ideas for blog entries—I've been doing this thing for about 13 years now—but when that happens, one of the best resources is thinking about other stuff I've written about. An idea occurred to me earlier this week that I'm going to explore over the next couple of months. Namely: every book is different! And they all deserve at the very least a small "making of ..." essay.

However, I've got a slight dilemma about how to tackle the subject.

Do I do it chronologically? If so, I'd have to start with "The Web Architect's Handbook" from 1996, or maybe "Toast, and other rusted futures" from 2000. But hang on, I wrote "Scratch Monkey" circa 1990-94, so doesn't that come first? And how do I deal with "Accelerando", which took 5 years to emerge, during which I wrote at least four other novels?

Alternatively, do I approach the problem by series? Not all my books are parts of a series, and — I'm somewhat alarmed to realize — not one of the actual series has an actual no-shit end (although "The Trade of Queens" comes close to ending the Merchant Princes; the next book, provisionally titled "Dark State", picks up the threads nearly 17 years later) ...

Then there's the question of what to write about. Do I discuss where the ideas and plot points emerged? The characters? Or do I discuss the methods I used to write the books, and the obstacles and encountered in the technical process? And what about possible spoilers or explanations of what I was trying to achieve when I wrote them, as opposed to what reviewers and regular readers thought they were about?

What would you like to know about my books, that isn't obvious from reading them? This is a serious question and I want answers, dammit. Because this project is going to be the main preoccupation of this blog for the next few months ...



What inspired you to start forming coherent thoughts that would eventually be condensated into the book? What was the initial great insight, how was it hijacked by the second iteration and what were your thgouhts on that? Any particular real-life events that brought these events forth?

just my 2 pennies :)


This is probably aimed mainly towards your near future SF than some of your other work, but how much does the plausibility of future technology and society come into your writing?


I wouldn't be so worried about the order as I don't think you are going to do them all at once or be happy with the drafts (ever). I would expect you to drag one out when something comes up that is relevant and polish & publish then. Efficiency & all.

What you thought you were writing when you started and what you thought you got would be interesting. Also what you think reviewers and the "serious" people missed.


You don't have to answer this here, but one of the things that really frustrated me about the Merchant Prince novels was that our heros never finished exploring the world with the ruins.


"Scratch Monkey"? never 'eard a that one...?


That particular concern is going to be addressed, in detail, in the next trilogy of MP books. Hopefully arriving in bookstores around 2015 (I have to write them first!).


Probably the meta-stories regarding the making-of.

I mean, not a technical description, or a cold list, but episodes and facts worth sharing.

For instance, the idea of Scorpion Stare come from a day walking around London, seeing how many cameras there are and noticing one particular camera with a (reflected) red light in the lenses like HAL9000 that was staring at you.


I would be very interested to hear what you were aiming at in each book, stylistically, as well as (for want of a better word) the socio-political or technological issues you wanted to engage with, and also the homages to and/or parodies of other writers you buried in plotlines or characters, and your thoughts on what unfinished business is left in each book. Love your work, but can't wait for more of the Saturn's Children universe.


Personally, I wouldn't mind hearing a wee bit about how you do research - or how your reading in books, online and elsewhere feeds into and informs your stories. That might be more of a general topic though, rather than a book-by-book kind of thing.


I think the emergent process for Accelerando (and also the exponential timeline in the stories) would make an interesting start for this project.

Or, starting at the other end, I remember you previously talked a bit on this blog about some hidden context in Rule 34, with regards to the second-person perspective. I don't feel like I haven't fully gotten it, and would like some more elaboration there, as well.

In general, I feel much more interested in additional backstory or inspirations for your writing than more on the technical process or methods (but I don't have much of a clue about the latter two, so it would be interesting to learn more about them).


The roads not taken: story lines that were promising enough to develop, but that did not make it into the final text. What was good about them, why did they have to go?


cheaper than buying it off Amazon...:-D


I don't have particular questions about them I'd like to answer. But in terms of ordering, if it were me, I'd do it thematically.

"Characters - how I established them, made them different, what was special" - that could be 1 or 3 essays. "Compare and contrast plots" and "How to spot and plug plot holes" sounds like another couple. "How to make world building interesting?" and "Some of my world building disasters and triumphs" is two more.

There's loads more in there - how to make villains interesting and not just "Lord Darkness" etc. And that way you avoid the problems you've highlighted.


Which major characters you've written are your favorite and least favorite?


Why not do it year by year, and write about every book that you worked on that year (assuming you have some kind of diary or just remember when you worked on what. This way we could see how your writing evolved over time across your entire oeuvre.


Do I do it chronologically?

Do it the way you want to. Out of order seem better imho.

Do I discuss where the ideas and plot points emerged? The characters?

Mostly this.

Or do I discuss the methods I used to write the books, and the obstacles and encountered in the technical process?

A little bit of that.

And what about possible spoilers or explanations of what I was trying to achieve when I wrote them, as opposed to what reviewers and regular readers thought they were about?

Definitely at the end with s spoiler tag.

Hope this helps :)

P.S. I finally made an account in order to comment on the blog yay \o/


Okay, three questions:

  • how many fiction had you written before you were able to sit down and write something fit for publication more-or-less in one pass?

  • sometimes you have mentioned ideas that your blog readers think are fun, but you don't believe would make good novels. How far have you got into a novel before realising it wouldn't work? Do you have a systematic way of reviewing your ideas before you start, or is it intuitive?

  • as someone who enjoys writing non-fiction (expository blog posts, basically), what makes you want to write fiction? Your long-form non-fiction is great - is fiction just more fun to do? (Don't take that as a vote for you to stop writing novels!)


Just checking in to register my interest.

The themes suggested in comment #1 and #9 would both be of great interest to me, but besides that I trust in your judgement to find the most interesting and entertaining metastories to tell.

Seems like this is going to be a good month for blog posts.


One possibility: just as the mood takes you, use one particular book to illustrate on particular aspect of your writing or process.

Did character cause you issues in one? Or was cracking the plot an issue in another, and how was the difficulty overcome? I seem to remember you getting sucked into writing one book ("The Fuller Memorandum"?) while you supposed to be finishing a different one ("Rule 34"?) - what is that kept drawing you in and why?


Accelerando is still one of the most breathtaking books I've ever read purely on the basis of taking the ball and running with it. I would love to hear the background story on how that book came about and how the massive leaps of technology were plotted.


As one of the people whi just might think about one remote day maybe sitting doen and try to write something of their own, I'd be interested in hearing about how to arrive from a weird idea or setting at the point where People Do Things and there's an actual plot.

I also like the proposal with the paths not taken.

What real-life inspirations and research went into the stories - not only or especially the science in the fiction, but settings. Where do the police in Halting state and Rule 34 come from? Are there real people as an inspiration to mannfred max or however the guy in accelerando is called? And so on.


Those questions are, alas, 100% off-topic.


As far as windows into your process are concerned, I enjoyed the afterwords in The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue and was sad when there wasn't such an afterword in The Fuller Memorandum or The Apocalypse Codex.


Alright, you (and others) have stated ideas are cheap, the follow through is where the work and money are.

How do you deal with the initial idea from your thug of a muse? I mean to get it to the point where you can tell this is something you want to build on further?

Then, how do you keep her from completely derailing other projects? I know the muse has derailed projects in the past, but I bet its hard.

Hope these are on topic and to see your answers.


You'll probably say it's offtopic, but I remain curious about the problems of the Eschaton universe.


Fair point. Let me adapt the second question then:

  • What I would like to know about your books, that isn't obvious from reading them, is how much they change between initial conception and published product. Are there recurring types of problem you struggle with that require rewriting?

I would be interested to hear more than a little bit about the friends who got you through the tough periods when inspiration was hard to find. I read novels like Accelerando and Iron Sunrise and am initially blown away by both the insight and the audacity of imagination in their conception; but then I have to think that carrying ideas like these forward takes more than one set of inspirations, it takes a village as the cliche goes. Whose your village and where do they pitch in?


I've learned a little about how stories are written by reading a lot of Warren Ellis and yourself. The both of you cram so much into so little space that there just isn't room to file off the sharp edges.

Some techniques stand out: introducing a "new guy" so you can explain the setting to the reader (or even a naif so you can explain the moral structure); using a romantic partner to evoke a main character's internal state (with bonus romance subplot); including speculative elements and gadgets only when they advance the plot.

I expect these are all just part of a body of basic technique that I could read about in a book somewhere.

That said, I'd be delighted if you could discuss the development of your own technique, and perhaps the cases where following the standard rules led to surprises.


In your Laundry novels you stated the each one is a homage to a different spy / suspense author. In one of your upcoming making of posts could you outline the authors you selected and how the ongoing sufferings of Bob Howard reflect each writer's style? Thank you.


Also, sorry for offtopic but: Has anyone set and printed copies of Scratch Monkey on an Espresso or something? I'm tempted to run one off at Powell's, but suspect that there are gotchas.


I'd say start with your first fiction book that was respectfully successful.

The only other thing I'd like to know in particular is whether Accelerando should be read as satire or "serious" fiction or something in between.


It takes more than one idea to make a novel. Hell, it takes more than one idea to make a short story. My usual response to the muse is to say "that's nice, dear," and ignore her until the pile of ideas she's come up with is so great that I can grind out the book. Except sometimes that doesn't work.

Right now I'm taking a couple of weeks off from the trilogy I'm supposed to be writing to finish a novelette or novella (under 30,000 words in any event) that has been hanging fire for about 4-5 years. Finally, finally, the last piece slotted into place and I realized that in addition to a supernatural antagonist (it's a Laundry story) I needed a human antagonist. Yes, sometimes it takes that long to come together!


"Scratch Monkey" is available for sale from NESFA Press. I'd rather you bought from them than printed your own -- it's a high quality product from a small enthusiastic fan group who deserve encouragement.


First, a note about spoilers: I'm not sure the "spoilers at the end" suggestion is strong enough. Unless you add a lot of white space ("this space intentionally left blank- spoilers follow") I would consider putting "spoiler" discussions into the first comment on the post. I know this is not traditional "Blogging Behavior", but this might be an instance where it is required.

Another way to approach this is via awards- by now you have enough books that you'll be able to award most drafts and least drafts, largest (and/or most significant) piece of text cut, most and least reviewers, most disputed (disagreement between pre-release reviewers, post release reviewers, and/or you and the general public), longest and shortest gestation (from first idea to publication), longest and shortest labor (from end of first draft) and there are a dozen other ways you can take that. For each award you can set up a couple of nominees, tell us about why they were nominated (both the technical and the meta) and announce the winner.

Yet another way would be excerpts- choose a paragraph or two (monologue, dialogue, descriptive, action, whatever) that you particularly like from each book and tell us a story about it. This can take many forms, technical, historical meta etc.


I'll definitely put any spoilers "below the fold" -- i.e. the "click to read the rest of this blog entry" link. You won't see spoilers on the front page.

What about ANTI-spoilers, though?

For example: something I thought was common knowledge turns out to be obscure: "glasshouse" is British army slang for a military prison.

If you read "Glasshouse" bearing in mind that recondite piece of information, it will make a whole different kind of sense than if you read it in ignorance of the point. (Unless you also recognize the origins of the slang in the design of that particular prison at Aldershot, which in turn was influenced by Benthamite theories about the panopticon. (And it also helps to be familiar with the Stanford prison experiment and its implications for group psychology, not to mention the Milgram experiment, and finally to have read at least some of John Varley's Eight Worlds novels and short stories.))


As far as order? Make a list of novels, striking each off as you discuss it, choosing the order on the fly. The novel you most feel like discussing at this moment is the one I'd most enjoy hearing your thoughts on.

I would like to hear about the Web Architects Handbook, though, not having read it or having much familiarity with the subject. It just seems interesting to hear about the authoring of a book on the web in the context of what you know now and what has changed since and what remains the same. As well as, of course, the process you went through writing it.


I can testify that its worth it - at least as a hardcopy.


You mentioned in the "Space Pirates of KPMG" post that your novels tend to have working titles, with the actual final title only decided late in the process.

What were your various novels' working titles? And how do you go about deciding the real ones?


I'd be interested in how much research was involved in the Merchant Princes books. I've read a few books since I read the MP series that I've said to myself: did Charlie read these? Should I bring them to his attention?

One for instance: 1493 by Charles Mann (pub. 2012, so not an influence on MP). Mann suggested in an aside that there was evidence of declining crop yields in late 18th-century northern Europe due to soil exhaustion. If it hadn't been for the lucky discovery of Chile's nitrate-rich guano islands, all of Europe could have hit a population crash (or at least a slow-down) in the 19th century.

With the industrial revolution delayed by 100 years, and a couple of trade-disrupting world wars happening in the 19th and 20th centuries, the guano islands would probably not have been exploited as early as they were in OTL. So what would world (and European) population look like in New Britain's 2003? How much would this factor alone change technological and societal development?

TL;DR. There are so many knock-off effects of technological change that any alternate history becomes very difficult. My hat is off to you for that series, and I'm looking forward to Dark State.


Would not the Haber process would take care of the short fall of fertilizer?


Okay, you asked for it:

Novel -> Working title

Singularity Sky -> Festival of Fools

The Atrocity Archive -> Space Nazis Must Die (1)

Iron Sunrise -> Space Nazis Must Die (2)

Accelerando -> Accelerando

The Family Trade/The Hidden Family/The Bloodline Feud -> The Family Trade

Glasshouse -> Glasshouse

Thereafter: mostly they match up, except:

Wireless -> Palimpsest (glad I held that one back for the eventual novel)

Rule 34 -> 419 (that was the original pre-delay title)

Neptune's Brood -> Neptune's Brood, but stole chunks of ideas from the abortive "Space Pirates of KPMG"


In "The death of genre" a while ago you observed that "Science Fiction literature is unusual in that much of the work within the field exists in constant dialog with other works. Author A writes something; Author B reads it and writes something else by way of an oblique rejoinder."(1)

What I would be MOST interested to read about is how you see your novels fitting into that greater conversation.

Of the possibilities you mentioned, my initial thought is that what I'd most like to read about is what you were trying to accomplish with the novel; after that where the ideas behind the novel come from, and more in-depth discussion of the characters from your perspective.

(1) "The death of genre"


The dates are wrong. The Haber process is early Twentieth Century. Demonstrated 1909, first industrial-scale use by BASF in 1913, vital for German munitions production 1913-18. So it's a hundred years too late. It also depends on being able to build a high-pressure chemical plant, which definitely requires a significant industrial base. If something messes up the changes in British Agriculture in the 18th and 19th centuries, you struggle to feed the factories that builds the industry needed to build the tools for the Haber process.

And everyone depends on that Chilean nitrate to fight their wars.


For the Haber process you basically need (a) good enough steel to make reactor vessels that can cope with 25-35 bar pressure and 350-550 celsius temperatures, and (b) modern chemistry. You can trade off higher pressure against higher temperature for a given output efficiency. Any way you cut it, you need a decent steel industry before you can do industrial ammonia production. And I suspect you can't do the metallurgy without modern chemistry, either (which field really got underway circa 1780-1880).


Random order!

Please throw virtual dice before starting the blog entry.

That way, we can get your immediate reaction on remembering a particular book.

It would be wildly interesting :)


I'd like to see a John Scalzi-style Big Idea series. Pick a title at random and write about the motivating idea and how you developed the resulting book.


Thanks for the reminder re "Scratch Monkey". I have it on my iPad now.


there are some alternatives to the haber process, e.g. this one–Eyde_process

energy inefficient, but if you have cheap hydro energy, it's feasable. in the western civilization tech tree, it depends on electrical generators, a technology developed in the first half of the 19th century.

come to think about it, we could tie that one in with one of the more outlandish ideas for hydroelectrical power. there is always atlantropa

but maybe some smaller scale, e.g. the red sea, would be easier.


What I would be interested in is how view view your books now and how you might have changed them in retrospect.

Perhaps you can weave some of that into your blog comments about the background and process at the time of conception and writing.


As a person, I'd say do whatever you want. The way you approach even ordinary matters is usually interesting enough for me.

I'm not a person, however. I'm a librarian, so your question raises some interesting issues. Recently I had the services of an unpaid intern. I put her to work putting little numbers on the spines of our Speculative Fiction (we shelve scifi and fantasy together) indicating where in the series they appear. This is harder than it seems particularly when authors start adding sequels, prequels, parallel worlds, etc.

Mere chronology doesn't always work. Let's take Asimov's Foundation books. Should Foundation or Prelude to Foundation get the little number 1 on the spine? If the first in fictional time gets the 1, then Foundation is number 3. Then someone starting the series would start with a much lesser book and would probably never read any more of the series.

If someone asked me which book they should read first, I would start them with Foundation because they don't need the prequels to understand it.

So what I did was start with the prequels being 1, Foundation was 3, but then I put another little one under that to indicate the reader should start there. Asimov was easy, don't even get me started on Star Wars and Terry Brooks.

So, I think you should list your books in the order you think they should be read, but you should bear in mind there are two readers: one who goes to read the next Charles Stross book and one who picks a book up with to see if he'd like to maybe read a book by this author he's vaguely heard of, Charles Stross.

Keep in mind, too, that space and money prevents libraries from keeping every part of every series on their shelves. So the book on our shelf might be the only representative of that series.


C.S. Forester, who I consider to be a hard-SF writer whose subjects happened to be the past (Hornblower) and the present (The Ship, The Man in the Yellow Raft), wrote a rather great companion to his fiction with detailed maps, more technical detail, and usually some travelogue as well.


and before that, we have the frank-caro-process:

which also uses lots of energy, though one could use coal on that one.


I don't visit this blog expecting entries to have any relation to the previous or be consistent in themes or subjects.

On a meta level I find this idea of a writer asking the audience what to write a little disturbing. (Unless you're outsourcing the blog to some Edinborough PhD student's AI project and it needs keywords to get started, while you write the next novel in peace and quiet.)

But of course I can't resist, so how about your proposed tvtropes page for each book?


One of my standard interview questions is to ask people to describe their worst mistake, as it's usually more interesting than listening to people describe how great they are. (I should add that I'm a terrible interviewer; one of several reasons I exited manglement after an ill-advised flirtation with it.)

In the same spirit, I'd like to hear about the false paths you had to discard; I assume this must happen just as much in writing as it does in writing code. Sort of like the Eschaton/UB snafu you described, only I suppose there must have been ones you managed to spot in time before they broke a series.


Well, I'd suggest something like this.

You say every book is 'different', in its writing, genesis, research, reception etc. - and thus deserves a 'making of'.

Well first work out what is common and what is unique to each book. Then group/order those unique factors and cover them in some kind of logical sequence - describing the unique factor and how it applies to the specific book.

For example, if Iron Sunrise was unique in the realisation that you were painting yourself into unresolvable plot hole - you could cover how/why and how you avoided it in the other books.

In theory, that way, you might find out they are truly unique factors, or if there is a common metafactor, a thread that can be illuminated (say to do with world building).


You should absolutely start with "The Web Architect's Handbook," and write about the making of it as though it were fiction. (Inspiration probably because I am in the middle of reading "Weird Realism," the analysis of H. P. Lovecraft's work from the perspective of academic philosophy.)

Have fun with it, we'll have more fun too!


I care more about the books that made a comment about our actual world, or at least tried to. While I enjoyed Fuller Memorandum and so on a lot, they are not particularly special, or I missed that. It's a horror/thriller/spy plot with a somewhat unusual take on demons (with the math and all that).

So I want to read about Accelerando (which is a crazy book with its five or six multi-decade jumps), Halting State (crazy because it's set so soon) or Glasshouse (crazy because it's a story inside a story). In fact, Glasshouse is the one that got the biggest reaction from me, because to me, 50's white suburban Christian theocracy is worse horror than aliens that want to eat your brains. At least those are not my neighbours! Empathy for the protagonists made my physically ill and I had to put the book down a few times.

Order? Go with whatever you want.


Charlie @ 33 Contrariwise, A tiny remark or note can get automatically-processed in to a novel as a by-line, or maybe something larger. Example I happen to know of: The stains under Mo's nails, from playing her violin "Jonathan Hoag territory", I think you called it ....

& @ 37 And, perhaps "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" as well? Given the mutually-destructive forces at work amongst the population in the novel ???

@ 41 Also, SOME N European countries had understood the need for Crop Rotation, especially the value of planting with legumes. However, it took time for the idea to spread from England & the Netherlands, where it originated.

kdansky @ 59 Pink/brown (name your colours according to $preference) muslim theocracy would be even worse, I think ......


Can you recall any particular musical inspirations / congenial backgrounds for your work - I remember William Gibson giving a shout-out to Sisters of Mercy for the ambient energy that fueled his early stuff... or at least kept him distracted while he clacked away on his legendary steam-powered typewriter.


Do you have any specific reading order for your books? Do you recommend any?


I wish you had added a little something in your last book to tease us about what to expect.


I'm very much in favor of the 'anti-spoiler' idea, particularly with regard to elements of culture.

Glasshouse is a particularly good example: I didn't know that it was slang for 'military prison' until long after I read it (and this knowledge also changes my understanding of the Radiohead song 'Life in a Glasshouse').

However, culture has to do with both location and time. I was three years old when the soviet union collapsed, and so some things that are common knowledge to older generations about the cold war era are novel to me. Probably, I missed some stuff in A Colder War because of this. There are other things that come in far later: parts of Accelerando and Halting State seem to be strongly influenced by things that happened shortly before the '99 crash, and are just barely familiar to me (for instance, Aineko is clearly supposed to be related to Aibo, which I was aware of at the time, but someone two or three years younger than I am would probably not catch that at all; likewise, references to Neverwinter Nights in the Laundry books would be lost on someone younger than me in ways not immediately resolved by the wikipedia article. The offhand mentions of 'python 3000' in Halting State put me off, despite having written a lot of python, because the idea that python or some fork thereof would become re-branded as a specialized MMORPG-extension language seems far more alien now than the idea of augmented reality glasses with very popular video games does, and there's probably historical context for how that might seem more plausible. Even if there isn't, it's good to know).

Explaining some of the off-hand references that decay more quickly with time can be seen as a way of bolstering the value of your back-catalog in five or ten years, when people are reading Accelerando who weren't born when it was written.

Science fiction often ages badly because it suffers from choosing the wrong paths in projecting highly path-dependent technologies, and the rationale behind the projections is often completely lost. The first season of Star Trek had computers everywhere, and they were hulking mute machines -- quieter and smarter versions of the real computers people saw on television, projected forward without the benefit of predicting the rise of the personal computer and the twin driving forces of video games and networking in determining the direction of designs (not to mention other tasks that also heavily informed various iterations of design: word processing, spreadsheets). And, it's unclear to what extent Halting State falls into this trap: the augmented reality rigs in Halting State aren't unlike the nascent commercial augmented reality rigs, but it's unclear if (like the real ones) they draw their lineage from smartphones, instead of from PDAs -- at the very least, they did not seem to inherit the use of Java (one of the few places where Java is still well and truly thriving; the other being enterprise systems, where Java is still used only because Java was being used for everything five years ago and everybody hired in the intervening years took classes on it, but also one of the last holdouts of COBOL and RPG). So, I'd be interested in seeing your analysis of which projections went well and truly wrong, why you projected that they go that way instead of in the way they did, and what information was missing (in the name, I guess, of countermanding the idea that science fiction authors are oracles instead of generally reasonably intelligent and thoughtful regular people invested in telling reasonably believable lies for money).


The relationship between our world ideas and the slightly twisted versions of them in the Merchant Princes series - and what you had in mind in making those versions - would greatly interest me.


Do you have any specific reading order for your books? Do you recommend any?

No and no.

However, I write in a variety of modes. I've done space opera, Lovecraftian/espionage, alt-hist technothrillers (mismarketed as fantasy) that explore economic development issues, near-future crime novels about the post-internet world, psychological explorations, and singularity-fic. Usually a single book brackets more than one of these interests. I guess I ought to bolt together a mind map, or maybe a non-Bayesian expert system, to deliver recommendations ...


Unfortunately quite a few of the Star Trek type TV /film series type things are based upon good old Hornblower/ Captain Aubrey type Fleet Action of the Napoleonic Age Of Sail ..Avast There Run out the Technological Device! ..Insert Tech...And prepare to receive Borders with our Mighty Side Arms and Cutlasses at extreme close quarters -or their Futuristic Bateleth Type Thingies ...INSERT TECH DAMMIT! ... And Splice the Main Wot Not whist you are about it or I’ll have the Hide off your back! Arrh Jim Lad! Them that Sub Edits will be the lucky ones!

There’s an interesting project underway on the Aubrey-Maturin series...

Any Historical series is bound to acquire an, “How Do They Do It” book and a “Where Do They Do/Did They Do it book" too.

I have several such like things on the Patrick O' Brien series and not a few on other serial historical fiction works.

This is also true of espionage series; look up " The Len Deighton Companion". It is utterly inevitable that one of these days our Host will be dunned to produce, or manage, a “Laundry Files” espionage world commentary ...why not? Wouldn’t you buy one? Quite Right. Me too. And Our Gracious Host has already done most of the Research for such a book in researching the background to the Laundry Files series. There’s probably some sort of Law of Publishing that makes this utterly inevitable as a product of any successful series.

Actually I think that this is a natural extension of any series by way of Games and similar such Virtual World on line publications...including, say, Real World Interactions? I've just made up the term but consider a Google Glasses /Halting State virtual world image that is superimposed on your tedious Commuter journey into central London.


This following is Utterly Off Topic and all who may care to will doubtless line up to Reproach me, but, just in case you havent come upon this, Charlie ..

" When the cat’s away: new system allow owners to track their errant moggies' movements "

I should be Really ashamed of myself for posting that.

What would you like to know about my books, that isn't obvious from reading them?

When ever I finish a project - successful or otherwise - there are almost always lessons that I take away. Either stuff to do again, or things to avoid.

When lessons in writing/publishing did you learn after each of your books? ;-)


Festival of fools is better than singularity sky, IMO.

And please actually write a story called space nazis must die, sounds hilarious!


Perhaps a reverse chronology? Do you have things to share from the more recent texts ... bits on the cutting room floor?

Love the idea of this series of posts and can't wait to read them.

You could leave it up to a random number generator... perhaps a random number for book, page and line and then making a post about that section of the text and then spiral out from that a little to make it a complete post.


Festival of fools is better than singularity sky, IMO.

Alas: when Ace bought it, in 2001, Marketing expressed concerns about Richard Paul Russo's novel "Ship of Fools" already being on their list -- they were concerned that "Festival of Fools" was too similar. So a change was requested. My editor knew about "Lobsters" and the stories that would become "Accelerando", and the Singularity was hot right then, so she insisted that the title have "Singularity" in it. So we kicked possibilities back and forth in email, and "Singularity Sky" was the least-bad one we came up with that fitted the requirement.


I don't think not knowing the slang "Glasshouse" particularly affects the reading of that story... I do recall a couple of instances where lack of assumed knowledge -did- skew my reading, though:

In "Trunk and Disorderly" you kept referring to people being "U" or "non-U", and I'd assumed this was a futuristic concept that you'd explain in good time - I got the idea from context, but was puzzled when I'd got to the end and you hadn't revealed the etymology as expected.

Another example was Miriam ordering an "overlocker". I now know this is a commonly-known type of sewing-machine, but for a couple of chapters I'd assumed she'd just acquired a fancy extra-secure suitcase...


IMHO... Some authors use the genre as a backdrop to explore things. Le Carre uses spying to play with trust and betrayal, Deighton similar (but I thought the final third-person perspective for the first-person Game/Set/Match series was wonderful). Gerald Seymour gets inside people's heads, and it's about guilt and loyalty and redemption. Ted Allbeury came to writing late, but did some wonderful short stories in the spy genre, with the advantage of a lot of domain-specific knowledge.

So: what proportion do you see your books as being about playing with the impact of technology on people, and how much about the impact of people on technology?

How conscious are you about the impact of UK culture in your writing, e.g. basic assumptions like "the National Health Service is a good thing / Policing should be by consent". Is this something that is a post-writing or a during-writing process?

Home much of your writing is "here's a cool idea, let's have some fun with it"?


U or non-U in "Trunk and Disorderly" is a very British thing -- upper class or non-upper class. (Not actually something I invented -- it's old -- but something I decided to use without explanation as a gender axis. Because in some areas, it really was gender-linked; cf. the pairing practices of gay men in the 1880s-1960s in England.)

"Overlocker" -- I never heard the term "Serger" until Americans began commenting on the book, because overlockers is what they're sold as in the UK.


So: what proportion do you see your books as being about playing with the impact of technology on people, and how much about the impact of people on technology?


Technology is part of what Richard Dawkins called our extended phenotype -- it's an extension of our bodies through non-biological structures (and this includes an extension of our cognitive functioning).

I find "literary" fiction that doesn't take this into account fundamentally uninteresting because it forces a false focus on some aspects of human behaviour at the expense of others. Can you, really, write a plausible novel of the modern world that doesn't have the internet in the background, along with those strange glowing glass slabs we're all carrying around these days, and drone strikes on villages in wild areas, and an uneasy global hegemon? I think not. And because your average novelist is in their fifties, and at an age when they're not easily able to adapt to new technologies and ideologies, we see such phenomena underrepresented in their work.


1) I remember "Space Nazis Must Die" from Usenet, and I still remember those books by that title. That title was so awesome that when I first read Iron Sunrise it popped into my head unbidden from the turbid depths of my subconscious. I ended up being lightly embarrassed when I found out that I wasn't such a clever dick after all - I'd just seen your working title on Usenet ~5 years before, long before I had any idea of who the heck Charles Stross was.

2) I am very in interested in you hashing out the differences between what you were attempting to accomplish, what you think you accomplished, what reviewers said the book was about, and what fans thought the book was about.


[i]U or non-U[/i]

invented by Alan Ross and popularised by poet Stephen Spender and writer Nancy Mitford

I remember the younger son of a peer telling me his father said "mirror" and "cemetery" - but that words like "pardon?" and "lounge" were worse than swearwords!

"Only airports have lounges!"


I wouldn't a clue what either of those were...?

wouldn't have a clue what


Thanks and apologies, I must've missed that the first time around.


Charlie @75 U/non-U must must have been fairly clear from its context. I remember being reminded of an episode of a late-80s sitcom called "Frank's Place", in which the title character was put up as a member for an African-American social club called the Big-C Club. He was proposed as the first Little-C member. Turned out that C stood for Creole, and that the Big-C was for light skinned, and the little for dark skinned.

Charlie @76 Technology is part of what Richard Dawkins called our extended phenotype -- it's an extension of our bodies through non-biological structures

I had a realization a few years ago; while sitting in the waiting area of a Veteran's hospital, along with a few Vietnam era and more recent vets with prosthetic legs and arms--Cyborgs are already here, have been for a while. And to some degree there is a bit of fashion to it. A woman had come in to get a new knee brace, she traded in her old bright yellow one for a day-glo green one.

Then saw about The Alternative Limb Project a couple months ago.

And more recently heard the idea that we are all cyborgs, when you consider our tablets and smartphones.

So, yeah, any contemporary fiction (historical excepted) that doesn't take technology into account is going to seem wrong. But at the same time I sort of worry that coming generations will have trouble relating to stories more than twenty years old, where characters don't have the things they take for granted.


Charlie, I have another one. You've frequently shared the world building and assumptions going on to make up the nuts and bolts of the worlds your characters tear around in (and sometimes save, sometimes break).

But what about the characters? Can you talk about the characters and what inspires them?


But what about the characters? Can you talk about the characters and what inspires them?

Maybe. But there are a lot more characters than novels!

What I can say is that I rarely -- and never, recently -- lift characters 100% from real life: if I'm going to use real people I almost invariably mix up attributes from a couple of different folks. Exceptions: there are Tuckerizations in some of my books, i.e. real person's name applied to made-up character (with prior consent). The physiognomy of the Gnome in "Rule 34", and a chunk of his character (but not his profession) is lifted wholesale from one person, with his knowledge; similarly Wednesday in "Iron Sunrise". Manfred Macx is not based on Cory Doctorow -- I hadn't met Cory when I invented him out of whole cloth. And Bob Howard is not me. (I know some people are confused by the first-person narrative; oddly, nobody seems to think I'm Robin/Reeve from Glasshouse.)


Sorry, how you take them from concept to execution? And you could use any of your favorites as examples so long as you name them.


Charlie, how much do you know about the back story / world of your stories. I'm sure it varies from book to book, but is it enough just to make the story stand or does ferreting out back story / world building help you write the story?

That sounds a really obvious question now but I was thinking about Glasshouse and caused me to ask this question. There's lots there that the reader can't know because the protagonists don't. Do you?

Possible Spoiler (delete if inappropriate)

For example do you know where Curious Yellow came from, or is it enough to know that it arrived? Do you know what Robin can't remember?

What strikes me about the early time on the ship is how well you chose the activities to bedevil Robin with.

What ever you decide to write we'll be reading. Maggie


I wonder what connections you see either during subcreation of the fictional worlds, or retroactively in autobiographical analysis, back to your academic or on-the-job education.

That is, what did the Biochemistry and other required classes for Pharmacy lead to in the biochemistry of extraterrestrials, or weird drugs, or neurochemistry?

What did Software Start up and boom/bust experience lead to in worlds recognizably ours, or further away in the Multiverse?

What high school or university classes led to your unusual insights into AI and Space Travel?


m @ 84 IIRC "I am curious - yellow" was a supposedly soft-porn film made in the early '70's. I think there was another one, too: "I am curious - blue" Ah, found it: 1967 Still-image links probably NSFW are to be found HERE enjoy (or not ) ....


Sort of on-topic - If you'd asked me (there are all sorts of reasons why you wouldn't have), I'd have said that "Glasshouse" was a common colloquialism for a military prison in the UK. I'm not in the least surprised to find that the USians don't use the same word for the establishment.


I believe that the USian equivalent to "Glasshouse" is "Stockade" (Army and Air Force) or "Brig" (Navy and Marine Corps)...


Thank you Greg, that's just the sort of stuff I need to know. And not the answer to the question i was asking.

Personally the name chimes in my head with an Aldus Huxley Novel but never mind.

What I am curious about is, how if Charlie can see the fatal flaw in the subsequently infected hardware, why didn't anyone in the marketing department spot it, or is this a 'telephone sanitizer'* problem?

*a la H2G2



As a word for prison, I think that "stockade" may be US-specific, but AFAIK "brig" always means "cells on a vessel" (or a sailing vessel with 2 square-rigged masts) in English-speaking nations.


I'd like to suggest a hat-tip to Jeff Noon's Vurt ( and yes, while I did have a vague recollection of this I did have to hunt around for the actual book and author...) as an alternative (if possibly linked) inspiration for Curious Yellow. I'm sure there'll be an author along any minute to confirm or deny this....

Oh, and in case anyone's wondering, yes, I would rather like to hear more about the Glasshouse universe and the censorship wars some day please... :-)


I haven't read any Jeff Noon. (Got two pages into "Vurt", screamed, and threw the book at the wall -- too like the inside of my own head at the time.)


I don't seem to have expressed myself very clearly here. the question i asked was. Does Charlie know why someone/thing in 'Glasshouse' world sat down and decided to let Curious Yellow loose?

Or rather did he have to know where it came from in the back story? Or was the fact that it came enough for the story.

There are lots of places that the idea of Curious Yellow could have come from. I'm sure there is a proper term, but banana fungus and potato blight give you the gist.

The story is made where you find a stable thing and break it.



Plot synopsis shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia:

"Vurt tells the story of Scribble and his "gang", the Stash Riders, as they search for his missing sister/lover Desdemona. The novel is set in an alternate version of Manchester, England, in which society has been shaped by Vurt, a hallucinogenic drug/shared alternate reality, accessed by sucking on colour-coded feathers. Through some (never explained) mechanism, the dreams, mythology, and imaginings of humanity have achieved objective reality in the Vurt and become "real".

"Before the novel begins, Scribble and his sister-lover take a shared trip into a vurt called English Voodoo, but upon awakening Scribble finds his sister has been replaced by an amorphous blob that Mandy, a fellow Stash Rider, nicknames "The Thing from Outer Space". From that point on, Scribble is on a mission to find another copy of the rare and contraband Curious Yellow feather (found within English Voodoo), so that he can exchange The Thing for Desdemona.

A slightly freaky bit of synchronicity I think... :-)


I would have thought that the point about the word "Glasshouse" is that knowledge of it as slang for military prison would be age segregated. Those of us old enough to have read, as children, various comics such as 'Victor' and 'Commando' will have come across it before, but those younger will not, unless they read a lot of military history or certain old types of film.

Thus to Charlie and myself the word has an obvious meaning. To those who came of age this century, much less so.


According to Wikipedia, and I think it's been mentioned here, the name and idea behind Curious Yellow comes from Curious Yellow: The First Coordinated Worm Design, By Brandon Wiley.

Of course, that does nothing to answer your actual question regarding "Glasshouse".


That's the source of the censorship worm in "Glasshouse". That, and a passing familiarity with Ken Thompson's paper "Reflections on Trusting Trust".


A question that has been running around in my head: which of your books do you consider to fundamentally written in your style, and what would characterize it?

I'll explain, a large part of your books you deliberatly wrote in the style of X (Heinlein, BOFH...) and others as a stylistic experiment (You are reading a book. You like it. You want the next one.). Which of your books are in your "natural" style?



That question has a simple answer: all my books are written in my natural style! I mean, I wrote them!

As for how I'd characterise it, I'd say it's about the ideas. Not just nuts'n'bolts hard-SF type sciency ideas, but ideas about other aspects of humanity -- history, economics, sociology, psychology. All of them coming to bear on the situation I've put my protagonists in. The protagonists usually being mostly reasonable human beings who find themselves in a situation rendered unreasonable by the rupture from our everyday present.


I find a lot of Jeff Noon too weird to be enjoyable reading for me. But his collection of short-short stories "Pixel Juice" is well worth getting hold of. They're - as such things always are - a mixed bag, but there are some absolute belters in there and they are all short enough that you rapidly move onto something else if you don't take to any particular one.

"The Cabinet of Night Unlocked" and "Specimins"are "stick in the mind" ones for me. The latter I found (almost certainly) pirated to read on line while checking the title before posting this.


I'd second Pixel Juice, a number of them have really stuck with me. Though to Charlie's point, it was often because they'd made me pretty uncomfortable, especially in that 'I Can't. Stop. Thinking about it.' way.


Charlie is one of a number of people I know whose work sounds like they speak.


I guess my first question (hello, just signed in for the first time) would be: Do you do a lot of research for your futuristic pieces (of course you do), and is that secondary to the story you want to tell and therefore kind of a chore?


I wish I could track my little idiot like that--she has an ID chip, should she be picked up any authorized party and turned over to the pound (from whence she came), but I'd love to be able to turn on the phone and discover she's over at the neighbors taunting the dogs again. Or stuck in my other neighbor's garage (which is heated, so I wouldn't worry about her so much). I wonder how much it costs to get the GPS chip? (wouldn't have a catflap, guarded or otherwise, we live at 4200 feet and it gets COLD here in winter).


Off Topic, but related: (If you really want to know what your house cat has been up to...) The Panopticon state is here for Children and Houselhold pets?

I wonder if you could link this to the GPS/

And I live with neighbors who think a free range pit bull is cool...


As a 3rd party view, I'd charactorise the obvious "identifying features" of Strossian writing as:- 1) Accurate or at least plausible sciences and business studies. 2) A high (but not unity) possibility of the use of the "unreliable narrator".


As English-as-second-language-reader, I sometimes have the impression I get only half the book, missing some of the lighter references and sub-surface touches that need deep cultural background knowledge to be seen. Still, I enjoy your books immensely. So my question would be about these different tiers - the action-driven plot, and the books inside the book with hidden references and points, the latent story/meta-story/"high literature", and how these two different "books" in one book are written.

What comes first for you? The meta-story-idea that needs deep cultural knowledge, or the action-plot-idea? And how do you bring both together? Or are they inseperateable for you in the process of writting?


Ah, research.

If I came up with a plan for a near-future novel, then sat down to do the research for it, it'd take me a couple of years to research it and then the plot would have changed out of all recognition and I'd be a couple of years late getting paid. So I don't do that.

Rather, I try and read widely (and occasionally deeply) all the time, and save up concepts until it's time to pitch a novel, at which point I've got 90% of the pieces already in place and can write the thing in under a year (and get paid on time).

Academics and non-fiction authors have the luxury of time to put research on the critical path before writing the book. Fiction is seldom sufficiently well-paid to make that practical.


I've no idea which level comes first; it varies from book to book. I don't have a fixed methodology for writing a novel -- no equivalent of the Robert McKee method for screenplay -- but do it by taste, like cooking a dish by taking a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that until it comes out right. (Obviously, the trial-and-error learning curve was a nightmare, which is why the bulk of my trunk novel-shaped-things are unpublishable junk.)

About the only tutorial on writing fiction that I've read that was any kind of use at all was Stephen King's "On Writing", where he spends about four chapters anatomizing the different levels of stuff that go into a novel. I wrote it around the time I was writing the first couple of Merchant Princes books, and the part I found most useful then was his discussion of the highest level aspect of a novel: the theme. Which is nothing so concrete that you can easily describe it, but if you consider a novel to be a metaphor, then the theme would be its subject: "war sucks", or "young love isn't necessarily going to endure forever", and so on.

Theme is a tenuous construct, and it is only mostly-mandatory in the novel-length form, although novellas also usually have a theme (a novella being the stage below a novel -- 20,000-40,000 words). Shorter forms of fiction are allowed to have a thematic resonance but don't absolutely require one.

I discovered that I wasn't always clear on the theme of my projects, but that working out what they were about at that satellite's-view level made it easier to see where the plot and characters should go. So these days I always try to look for the theme of a novel as early as possible in the writing process -- a very top-down approach.

"Neptune's Brood": the theme is an exploration of the implications of financial corruption, in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis. Yes, it's a space opera. "The Rhesus Chart": the theme is ... superpowers almost invariably come with unwelcome small-print attached. Also: parasitism sucks. "Dark State" (working title of Merchant Princes #7, not due in print before 2015 at the earliest) is hopefully going to be a black farce about the metastatic security state and the corruption of democracy (see also my wibbling about the Beige Dictatorship in recent months). And so on.


Ok, accepting that it won't appear before 2016 at the earliest, do you think that you could write a 3rd Liz Cavanaugh set before Embra has a workign light rail system? ;-)


...a black farce about the metastatic security state and the corruption of democracy...

IMHO, you shouldn't turn the paranoia up too far... :)

If you compare Ken Macleod's most recent books, "The Execution Channel" (for me) painted a more extreme security apparatus than "Intrusion". IMHO "Intrusion" was scarier because it was more believable.

For me, credibility comes more from cockup than conspiracy, carelessness rather than cunning - "Brazil" rather than "1984", if you like. Overworked civil servants, ad-hoc political control, and some embittered policemen are worse than a mastermind with a hollowed-out volcano and an army of boiler-suited minions.


Er, you know the "kidnap and murder bloggers then run their blogs as black disinformation channels" sub-plot from "The Execution Channel" has actually happened? (After the book came out. Middle Eastern/North African despotisms only, so far, thank Cthulhu ...)

I grant you the cock-up/conspiracy trade-off works in favor of the cock-up. I have a gorgeous cock-up in mind for "Dark State" -- one that could only happen in the internal culture of the state security apparatus of the USA.


Charlie, I case you ever collect your blog posts, and responses, into a book, you might want to correct the second sentence second paragraph, which starts "I wrote it around the" to "I read it around the". Just to avoid certain kinds of letters ...




Something I don't think you've blogged about IIRC:

Crossovers (not collaboration). Have you ever thought about trying it with a couple of your settings? Have agents or editors suggested it to you? Any general thoughts?


So...that gives me two routes for entertaining diversion via Web Search " the Robert McKee method for screenplay " and " Stephen King's "On Writing", " I’m not usually as analytical as this these days but it does seem to me that the under wiring should be invisible to the average reader - in which category I include myself - and that the 'theme' is ..Well it sounds uncomfortably close to “The moral of The Story is ..." moral lessons which used to set my teeth on edge when I was a child.


I find that I am a little wary of those who prescribe writing methods. We're all different. But the good things, which are common to this blog and the better sort of writing workshop, are those which come through a dialogue. The low-level mechanics, such as the first/second/third person approach are useful, but they are not what makes a good story. I can see how the same events could be described in three different ways. First person is Bob Howard. Second person might be Angleton, but is he pleased with what Bob did? Third Person suggests Bob wasn't there, and a a different sort of unreliability.

Charlie talks about the theme. It's both at a different structural level and on a much smaller scale, but there is Lester Dent's pulp adventure formula. 6000 words is very short fiction, but I think the basic structure still holds, and there are parallels with what Charlie does.

Consider Rule 34

The strange murder method: check.

The villain's strange objective: check.

The locale: check.

The looming threat: check.

But the book is much more than 6000 words, so we start off with apparent multiple sets of these things.

There's also a four-part structure that Dent describes and you can see that in a lot of TV. Maybe three parts. You're so rigidly bound with a novel, you have a bit more flexibility of timing. One part could be twenty thousand words, another thirty thousand, or is that too many words to a climax?

You cannot have a dialogue with Lester Dent over that sort of detail, or over anything. He's dead. I'm sure that we can all think of schoolteachers who, in our most sardonic moods, we might aver were almost certainly dead. But, if we ever are going to be writers, we have to assemble something from fragments, and all the dead voices telling what we should and should not do are giving us fragments to use.


I recommend July 13, 2010, Scribner 10th Anniversary edition of the book (ISBN 978-1-4391-9363-1), featuring an updated reading list from Stephen King, tales of battling drug addiction, gory details of near-death, and painful recovery through writing, from local yokel he could have invented as a character.

Robert McKee method for screenplay is for beginners. Power users (studios, big-name screenwriters) pay up to $20,000 per screenplay to be evaluated by a proprietary algorithm with database of thousands of focus groups, which tells one: "for your target demographic, the hero should have a side-kick. And lose the bowling scene."


And what themes was life throwing at you whilst you were writing these books? Consider this a gift to future undergrads taking "EngLit 101: Collected Works of Charles Stross - Themes and Memes"



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