Charlie Stross: January 2007 Archives

UK Glasshouse cover

My first author copy of the British edition of GLASSHOUSE came in the post today. The other author copies are coming from the warehouse shortly, which means it's going to be showing up in bookstores over the next few weeks. So if you're a UK native and wonder what I wrote after ACCELERANDO, now's your chance to find out (and here's the Amazon page to go to if you want to buy a copy).

From the cover copy:When Robin wakes up in a clinic with most of his memories missing, it doesn't take him long to discover that someone is trying to kill him. It's the twenty-seventh century, when interstellar travel is by teleport gate and conflicts are fought by network worms that censor refugees' personalities and target historians. The civil war is over and Robin has been demobilized, but someone wants him out of the picture because of something his earlier self knew. On the run from a ruthless pursuer and searching for a place to hide, he volunteers to participate in a unique experimental polity, the Glasshouse. Constructed to simulate a pre-accelerated culture, participants are assigned anonymized identities: it looks like the ideal hiding place for a posthuman on the run. But in this escape-proof environment Robin will undergo an even more radical change, placing him at the mercy of the experimenters, and of his own unbalanced psyche ...

(Note for American readers: the US mass market paperback comes out in June or July. However, because the dollar has slumped against just about every other currency, I wouldn't recommend importing a UK paperback — retailing at £6.99, it'll set you back $14 before postage, and you can pick up a US hardcover for barely more than that.)

Being a self-employed writer is not a lifestyle that suits everyone. In fact, there are a lot of misconceptions about what the job entails. I've been doing it full-time for over six years now, so while I can't claim an encyclopedic knowledge I can at least give you a brain dump of my personal perspective on it.

Firstly, forget the romance of the writer's lifestyle and the aesthetic beauty of having a Vocation that calls you to create High Art and lends you total creative control. That's all guff. Any depiction of the way novelists live and work that you see in the popular media is wrong. It's romanticized clap-trap. Here's the skinny:

You are a self-employed business-person. Occasionally you may be half of a partnership — I know a few husband-and-wife teams — but in general novelists are solitary creatures. You work in a service industry where output is proportional to hours spent working per person, and where it is very difficult to subcontract work out to hirelings unless you are rich, famous, and have had thirty years of seniority in which to build up a loyal customer base. So you eat or starve on the basis of your ability to put your bum in a chair and write. BIC or die, that's the first rule. Lifestyle issues come a distant second.

You are a supplier servicing one or two (rarely more) large organizations. You tender for work and if they like your pitch they will cough up an advance payment against the deliverables. Often you will discover in the contractual small-print that if you don't hand over the deliverables on time and to specification that advance, which you are using to pay your bills, becomes repayable in full. NB: if you don't think you can do the job, you shouldn't take the money. Publishers are usually reasonable about hitches on the production side, especially if you give them lots of advance warning and you're usually reliable, but they don't have to be. And if you piss off your large customer, they can drop you. It's a small field, and folks talk to each other. Get dropped by two or more publishers in a row, and people will start muttering.

Being a prima donna or a drama queen is not a survival asset. (Being personable, businesslike, and friendly ... well, that's another matter.)

You are almost certainly badly paid. A typical first novel in the SF or Fantasy fields nets an advance of just $5000 in the US market. By the time you've been around the bush a few times, if your career's doing well, you may be getting $15,000 to $20,000. And if your sales are good and you push foreign sub-rights you may double that figure, over the next two or three years. But you can't do long-term financial planning on the assumption that your advances will increase or your books will be big in Japan. As often as not your career will stagnate due to circumstances outside your control, and you may find your advances spiraling down. The Society of Authors figure I heard from around 2000 was that the average novelist in the UK earns £4,500 a year. Which is even worse when you remember that this "average" is skewed upwards by the presence of Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowling.

(You shouldn't despair just yet, though. There are a lot of folks who write as a part-time occupation, maybe turning in a novel every 2-3 years while holding down a day job. They tend to drag the average down a bit, but they're not starving because they have other fish to fry. But writing novels is no easy path to fame and fortune, and if you want to earn lots of money, you should have gone into accountancy or medicine.)

Your lifestyle consists of this: sooner or later (usually later) you wake up, do your usual morning pre-work routine, then commute three metres to your office, wherein you sit for several hours, on your own, hoping the phone won't ring because it will break your concentration for a quarter of an hour afterwards, if you're lucky.

Somewhere in those several hours you will hopefully write something. Unless you're already an A-list writer who can pull advances in excess of $50,000, you'd better either pump out an average of 1000 finished (polished, edited) words of prose per working day, or go looking for a day job. There are roughly 250 working days in a year (I'm assuming you take a couple of days a week off, and have vacations and sick leave), so that's 250,000 words, which is about two ordinary-length novels and a couple of short stories. Some writers do a whole lot more than 1000 finished words per day; some do fewer. If you do fewer and you're at the low-to-middling end of the pecking order, you will not be able to earn a living at this career. Many writers do 250,000 words a year and still can't make a living. They may have part-time jobs, to make ends meet, or a full-time job and do the writing thing in the evenings and at weekends. It's a treadmill.

In addition to writing you will:

  • pore over copy-edited manuscripts, correcting editorial mark-ups
  • write
  • grovel over galley proofs, looking for typos
  • write
  • keep track of your expenses and petty cash and do all the 1001 things that any small business person has to do to keep HM Revenue and Customs off your back
  • write
  • enthusiastically deal with the press and interviewers, no matter how small or obscure the outlet — publicity is always a priority unless you're big enough to hire a PR manager
  • write
  • deal with correspondence to your editor(s) and agent in a prompt, professional manner because if you ever get yourself a reputation for being difficult to work with you are so screwed ... (luckily editors and agents know that only lunatics and eccentrics want to be full-time writers, so no small amount of their time is dedicated to insulating you from the demands of other publishing folks, and vice versa)
  • write
  • persuade your bank to accept cheques drawn on currencies they've never heard of
  • write
  • learn more than you ever wanted to know about international double taxation treaties and the associated exemption forms
  • write
  • answer your fan mail (if you're lucky enough to have fans)
  • did I say "write" often enough? I meant "write, even when you're sick to the back teeth of it, when the current project is an interminable drag, when you can't even remember why you ever agreed to write this bloody stupid book, when your hands ache from RSI and your cat's forgotten who you are and your spouse is filing for divorce on grounds of neglect".

    And that's just for starters.

    The most useful piece of sanity-preservation advice I ever received on the subject came from another writer (not sure who, but I think it may have been Mary Gentle) who, years ago, explained to me that if you work full-time as an author for any length of time, you learn to maintain your social life first and schedule your work life around it.

    This may initially sound as if it contradicts what I was saying earlier about BIC, but bear this in mind: we humans are social animals. The novelist works on his or her own, closeted in a cell somewhere, with as little human contact as they can get away with while they're working. It follows that eventually you need to do the human contact thing. And you will receive a nasty shock if you insist on writing in the evenings and at weekends: when you surface to socialize, most of your friends will be unavailable. They all have day jobs, and they have limited free time. If your social hours don't overlap with their free time, you just aren't going to see them. So, despite being free to work whenever you want, this is a fairly strong argument for the jobbing author who values their sanity to keep evenings and weekends free. Never mind the author who has small children underfoot and has to deal with the exigencies of schools, childcare facilities, and the hundred and one other institutions that seem to assume parents are on call from 6am to 9pm.

    So what are the advantages?

    Well, if you're successful, people will want to see you and talk to you. People who've read your books. Sometimes they'll stop you to shake your hand while you're out in public. Often readers assume that they know you because they've read your work, so their body language and approach is unconsciously familiar, as if they've already met you. This can be really disconcerting, not to say embarrassing, if you've got a poor memory for faces and names (like me): is this person a complete stranger, or a long-lost friend?

    If you can keep the writing going and make enough money to eat out once in a while, you suddenly find you've got a wonderful bonus that nobody with a day job has — you can take time off whenever you like! Eventually the novelty wears off (there's nothing like fetching up with jet lag in a strange airport an hour after the last shuttle into town has left to take the shine off foreign travel) but if you've got a yen to visit strange places you can indulge it. (Hell, if you write about them you can even make it a tax-deductible business expense — at least to the extent your accountant or common sense says that you can justify it in the face of an audit.) If you're an SF/F writer, you may find that fans who run conventions want to fly you in and wine you and dine you for the sake of your company. On the other hand, if (like me) you can't work while traveling, this can put a bit of a crimp on your globe-trotting.

    What you won't get: book signing tours, stretch limos, and champagne receptions. Not unless your book advances are way bigger than mine: those things cost your publisher serious marketing money, and they're not going to spend that on you unless you're doing really well.

    If you think I'm being a bit downbeat here, consider what a signing tour entails: you, the author, need to hit at least two bookshops a day — preferably more — and probably two cities a day, typically for five to ten days. This involves significant transport expenses, not to mention five to ten nights in different hotels, living out of a suitcase. Your publisher has probably put someone on managing your tour full-time, so that's two people's accomodation and travel expenses that they have to cough up. That's got to be costing them somewhere north of US $5000 for a 10-day tour (probably double that, easily) so your presence on the tour needs to boost your net sales by something over $15,000 to make it a break-even proposition. If you're signing standard hardbacks, odds are that you're going to be signing your name more than 150 times per day to hit that target. And while you're doing that, you're not actually writing your next book, which will hopefully make them even more money. No, seriously: signing tours don't make sense and won't happen to you unless you make the big-time. Ditto the champagne receptions. Every year or so, when you visit your publisher, your editor will (if you're lucky) take you out for lunch or dinner on the expense account, but that's living large.

    So, to summarize: it's badly paid, the hours are weird, the office environment can be claustrophobic, you can't get the staff, you're selling your wares to big corporations who can roll over in their sleep and crush you if you don't make nice, nobody's going to give you a champagne reception, a stretch limo or a signing tour, there's lots of business admin stuff to deal with, and you still have to cram in a normal social life or you'll go mad.

    On the other hand: you're doing exactly what you always wanted to do (or you'd get frustrated and go do something else). And what could be better than that?

  • If you can see this, it means we're back in business.

    The server this blog — and my email — runs on died horribly over the weekend, so we've had to do a rush move to a new machine. Luckily, well, if you can read this there has been no data loss at all and we're back in business.

    (Techie addendum: we're still not sure what happened, but from mid-December onwards, the hitherto reliable machine began crashing. It used to be rock-solid, running for up to a year at a time, but the crashes grew increasingly frequent, and didn't seem to be software-related. Last week we began pestering tech support to replace bits of hardware, but our initial diagnosis — bad RAM, then a bad RAID controller, and finally a dying disk — were all proven wrong one at a time. By Monday, the machine was rebooting every couple of minutes, which is no way to run a server. So we're now running on a new box, with the old RAID array plugged in temporarily until we finish migrating off it.)

    If you sent me any email since last Friday, it's not lost — but it will take me some time to get to it, because the backlog is truly prodigious. (We redirected it to another host as a temporarily measure while we got this one fixed: it'll begin filtering through shortly.)

    In other news I handed in what is hopefully the last draft of "The Merchants' War" (book #4 of the Merchant Princes series), so once the server's up I can hopefully lie down and pant for a while before getting my teeth into the next big project.

    The server is seriously ill, and we'll be replacing it as soon as possible. Hopefully normal service will be resumed some time on Monday.

    Astute readers may have spotted this server falling over a few times in the past month. It's happening ever-more frequently, and we need to get it fixed. My money is on a dodgy power supply to the rack it sits in, rather than a software problem, and this is being looked into. But in the meantime, it's overdue for a kernel upgrade anyway, so we'll be rebooting it tomorrow evening. Hopefully this will be a routine non-event, but in the worst case scenario (server bursts into flames, runs amok with an axe, and barricades itself in the colo centre office with an UltraSPARC hostage) we might be down for somewhere between a couple of days and a week or so.

    Update: the server appears to have had early-stage Alzheimer's (memory corruption). Some new RAM was called for, and we are now monitoring the situation.

    And the prize for the best gadget-oriented blog EVAH!!! goes to, "Tech reviews for the bored'.

    (The comments are a hoot, too.)

    Gizmodo, Engadget, et al, eat your hearts out.

    In yet another example of joined-up government, Tony Blair is pushing a scheme to create a grand unified government database merging everything different departments know about you into a single amorphous glob of database goodness. Or so he sees it.

    From previous diatribes, you can probably guess what I think of this. Blair's faith in the infalability of the almighty computer is just as quaint as a vision of nuclear power producing "electricity too cheap to meter" ... and makes just about as much sense as that belief does in the post-Chernobyl world.

    In point of fact, any large database is full of garbage — incorrect updates (like my address details with Scottish Power, who have helpfully decided that while I've sold apartment A to buy apartment B, my mailing address is house C — which happens to be the abode of the person who bought apartment A — and boy, am I having fun sorting this out!), stale data (like the other institution that still has me living at apartment A), false positives (like the catalogue shop mailing list that has Person X still living at apartment B) and false negatives (like, oh, I guess some database that doesn't know I exist and ought to; say, the Scottish Arts Council Directory).

    By some estimates, up to a third of all records in large databases (such as credit reference agencies') contain errors. And when you merge databases, the probability of any key (that's a person, you or me) referencing records that contain errors is multiplied.

    A corollary of the plan to merge different government databases is that this scheme makes no sense unless the goal is to enable different government agencies to coordinate their contacts with the subject. The Social Security folks can refer odd behaviour to the Revenue, Social workers can look at criminal records, and so on. It's the unblinking red-rimmed gaze, guys, and it's going to make mistakes because in a third — or more — of cases there will be gibberish and lies in the database. For the past few years ever-vaguer suspicion laws have been added to the Police repertoire; now they're to be given a license to trawl for suggestive patterns.

    Blair, of course, is panglossian: "The purpose of this is not to create a new piece of technology at all or a new database. This is about sharing data in a sensible way so that the customer gets a better public service." R-i-i-g-h-t. So when the police arrest you because DVLA have notified them that the address on your driving license is inconsistent with the address on your car ownership documents (because you moved house and one of the forms got lost in the post), they're treating you as a "customer" and providing you with a "public service" when they go on a fishing trip through your tax records to see if you actually earned enough money to pay for that Porsche.

    Blair's lost it. He's confusing citizens with customers. I can't construe this as anything other than the delusional product of a mind that has ceased to see the public as human beings to whom the government owes a duty of service, and instead has come to the curious conclusion that we're an ever-gaping maw, a screaming hungry infantilized blob of desire that needs to sit still and be targeted by the fire-hose of public services. It's the ultimate packaged product of the capitalist ideology: citizens are replaced by customers and business knows what's best.

    And of course, when the product you're buying is government, there's only one store you're allowed to shop at.

    Want to know where Blair's database is going? Have a read of this, if you've the stomach for it. (But remember: it could always be worse! We could have a BNP government instead of caring, sharing, New Labour. But of course, if you're innocent you've got nothing to fear, as John Reid never tires of telling us. Sleep tight ...)

    It's that time of year again, and GLASSHOUSE is on its way into paperback form. Which means, if you have spotted any typos or clear errors in your precious hardcover of it, I'd like to know (in the comments, below). Go on, you know you want to catch me out!

    Or rather, I'm one of the folks Rick Kleffel interviewed for Weekend Edition Sunday, which you can catch online via the link.

    I've been troubled for a while now by a festering inconsistency in the memetic landscape through which I move; one of those odd conflicts between fact and ideology that cause one to think "now, hang on a moment" ... while contemplating a problem. The problem is the environment, and what to do about it, and environmentalism, and what it implies.

    There is, at this point in time, no doubt that we, the human species, have a major effect on our environment. Item One in the evidence for the prosecution is the Dodo; Item Two is the Moa; and we have a long chain of documented extinctions to work through before we go remotely near any items which are still open to argument. As for global climate change, Michael Crichton's outspoken conspiracy theories aside, there's sufficient evidence that numerous bodies who'd prefer not to believe in it, such as the British government (who would prefer not to believe in it because if confirmed, it will prove extremely expensive to them), are convinced that it is a clear and present danger. I'm taking it as a given here that we are facing increasingly violent and unpredictable weather and an overall increase in temperature. Some places will get colder, sure. But overall it's on the up and up, and with the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets losing mass, we're expecting sea levels to rise. As 75% of the human population — myself included — live within 200Km of the coast (hell, everyone in the UK lives within 100Km of some bit of coastline or another) I take that pretty damn personally.

    So, given all the above, why do I mutter bashfully and shuffle my feet when the subject of environmentalism comes up (much like those women who prefix any discussion of certain topics with "I'm not a feminist, but ...")?

    The issue, I think, is that political environmentalism — the ideology, as distinct from environmental science — comes with a bunch of baggage attached. We should reduce our carbon emissions in order to reduce levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. We should reduce our consumption. Don't drive, don't fly, don't buy shit. Use a composting toilet. Wear natural fibres. Eat less. Taken to the extreme, the deep greens would have us refrain from breeding and reduce our numbers to a level that could be sustained by agricultural technologies that use only renewable energy. In practice, that means draught horses and oxen. We're talking mediaeval, here. To save civilization, we've got to destroy it.

    Where did they get this idea from?

    I suspect the answer lies in the religious background of the people who brought us environmentalism as a creed. There's a hair-shirt subtext to much green politics that suggests that pollution is sinful, and because we have sinned, we must atone by subjecting ourselves to physical discomfort. It seems to me that this attitude has its roots in Christianity, by derivation from the Manichean struggle of good against evil. If pollution is evil and is a consequence of luxurious living (itself a sin), then the answer is to do good by eschewing luxury. To many proponents of environmentalism, environmentalism has become a hair-shirt creed of puritanical self-denial that begs the first question: why are we trying to preserve the environment?

    I'm all in favour of preserving the environment, but I want to preserve it because I want to live comfortably in it, not because "preserving the environment" is an end in and of itself. I'm a sinful lover of luxury who refuses to take his divinely-mandated penance, and so I have fallen from grace with the righteous greens. Or rather, I was never a communicant at their altar in the first place. (Clearly, I'm only saying I want to save the environment in order to destroy it. Or something.)

    Once you reject the religious aspects of green politics, it becomes a lot easier to reason about climate remediation (and to spot when people are talking bollocks). And as it happens, I'm not the only person thinking along these lines. Here's Bruce Sterling on the subject of what to do:

    Climate change is not gonna be combatted through voluntary acts of individual charity. It's gonna be combatted through some kind of colossal, global-scaled, multilateral, hectic, catch-as-catch-can effort to stop burning stuff, suck the burnt smoke out of the sky, and
    put the smoke back into the ground. That's not gonna get done a little green teacup at a time, because we've been doing it for two centuries and we don't have two centuries to undo it.

    "Reducing emissions" is a wrongheaded way to approach it. If "reducing emissions" is the goal, then the best technique available is to drop dead. The second-best technique is to go around killing a lot of people. Nobody's got a lighter eco-footprint than a dead and buried guy. He's not walking around leaving footprints: the Earth is piled on top of him.

    We're past the point where reduction helps much; we will have to invent and deploy active means of remediation of the damage. But from another, deeper perspective: we shouldn't involve outselves in lines of development where the ultimate victory condition is emulating dead
    people. There's no appeal in that. It's bad for us. That kind of inherent mournfulness is just not a good way to be human. We're not footprint-generating organisms whose presence on the planet is inherently toxic and hurtful. We need better handprints, not lighter footprints. We need better stuff, not less stuff. We need to think it through and take effective action, not curl up in a corner stricken with guilt and breathe shallowly.

    Climate change is a technologically-induced problem — although elements of it go all the way back to the invention of the technology of agriculture, 12,000 years ago — and it's going to take a technological fix. We need to stop burning hydrocarbons because they're screwing up our environment, but without energy we're going to have short, unpleasant lives: and the whole reason for not screwing up the environment is to have long, pleasant lives. So we need a basket of new technologies for energy (anyone who promises you a solar- or wind-powered monoculture is a crank or a liar or an ideologue) and that's going to mean solar, and wind, and hydro, and nuclear, and a bunch of others. And we're going to need more energy, because you can't pump CO2 down into empty gas fields using a hand pump. We can't just go back to shipping ourselves around by sea, because sea-going passenger liners are actually less energetically efficient than airliners: we need better airliners, and, crucially, better transport to get people in and out of regional hubs without driving or taking small commuter flights (which are far less efficient than wide-body super-Jumbos flying trans- or inter-continental). We need trains, not like Amtrak but like the modern high speed rail system taking shape across Europe.

    We can't give up eating, and farming, and agrobusiness, and cars, and planes. To do so suddenly at this juncture would be catastrophic: our transition to an urban technological society is a one-way gate, much like the development of settled agricultural communities in the neolithic. Once you go through the gate, the only way to go back involves somewhere between 80% and 98% of your population dying, and that's simply not acceptable. If we want to fix the environment, we need to go forwards, not backwards, and look at positive remediation technologies and energy cycles that don't rely on burning coal. And most importantly, we need to avoid the trap of looking at climate change through a distorting lens of quasi-religious puritanism.



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