Interview: Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross for Rapture of the Nerds

Yesterday, my essay on Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross went live. It’s a fascinating, spiky, meaty book and well worth your time. Earlier this month, I interviewed the pair of them about the book, the Singularity and the future. Here’s what they said:


How did the idea for the book come together?

Cory: I was living in SF, and Charlie was living in Edins, and though we’d not met, he and I had corresponded and read one another’s’ work and such. Charlie proposed collaborating, I agreed, and he sent me the first ~500 words of a story he’d got stuck on, called JURY SERVICE. I rewrote that, added ~500 words more, and sent it back. He did the same; and we volleyed until the story was done.

APPEALS COURT, the second novella that went into the novel, went less smoothly. Now that there was some backstory, we each seemed to possess distinctive ideas about where the story should go, and there’s a lot of literal back and fro in the first printing of that story as the protagonist runs back and forth while we tried to wrest control. Thankfully all that was edited out in the rewrite we did for the book.

This was almost certainly exacerbated by my own reluctance to talk about writing — I prefer to write out my story problems. Charlie’s much better about it.

PAROLE BOARD — the final novella, twice as long as the other two combined — went much more smoothly, likely because we had both come along quite some way in our own writing habits. We had a couple meetings — one f2f, one Skype — and sorted it all out and banged it out.


Charles : [[We get asked this so often that it’s an FAQ. Here’s the canned answer.]]

In stages. At first, Cory and I were chatting in email; one of us raised the idea of writing a story together — it’s quite common for SF authors to do this sort of thing for shits and giggles. So I rummaged in the dumpster of dead projects and coughed up a hairball of around 1000 words’ length; the opening of a story I hadn’t been able to continue writing. Cory broke new ground, adding to it, then bounced it back at me. We played ping-pong with it via email until it ran to 20,000 words, then (to our surprise) sold it to, at that time the highest-paying short fiction market in our field. That story was “Jury Service”, the first quarter of “Rapture of the Nerds”.
A couple of years later we were contacted by Lou Anders, who was then editing the magazine Argosy. He’d read “Jury Service” and wanted to commission us to write a sequel (“Appeals Court”), which he eventually published back-to-back with its predecessor in a limited-edition chapbook.
And then Tom Doherty, CEO of Tor, our publisher, heard about these collaborations. And he told his editors, “buy the Doctorow/Stross novel!” — even though no such novel really existed, and we were both working on other projects.
For a few years we were both busy doing other things; once a year we’d touch base. But then two things happened. First, Locus magazine ran a satirical April Fool’s news piece about us (“Stross and Doctorow hired to write authorized sequel to Atlas Shrugged”), and then it turned out we both had a six month gap in our schedules. So we went back to work and wrote the second, larger, half of what by now had grown into a novel, one 1000 word chunk at a time.
Talk a little about the Singularity. It’s a big idea that’s vital to the book but what does it mean to each of you?

Cory: It’s a literary device. As I wrote in Locus in 2007:

(From Cory Doctorow: The Progressive Apocalypse and other Futurismic Delights)

“Futurism has a psychological explanation, as recounted in Harvard clinical psych prof Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 book, “Stumbling on Happiness”. Our memories and our projections of the future are necessarily imperfect. Our memories consist of those observations our brains have bothered to keep records of, woven together with inference and whatever else is lying around handy when we try to remember something. Ask someone who’s eating a great lunch how breakfast was, and odds are she’ll tell you it was delicious. Ask the same question of someone eating rubbery airplane food, and he’ll tell you his breakfast was awful. We weave the past out of our imperfect memories and our observable present.

We make the future in much the same way: we use reasoning and evidence to predict what we can, and whenever we bump up against uncertainty, we fill the void with the present day. Hence the injunction on women soldiers in the future of “Starship Troopers”, or the bizarre, glassed-over “Progressland” city diorama at the end of the 1964 World’s Fair exhibit The Carousel of Progress, which Disney built for GE.

Lapsarianism — the idea of a paradise lost, a fall from grace that makes each year worse than the last — is the predominant future feeling for many people. It’s easy to see why: an imperfectly remembered golden childhood gives way to the worries of adulthood and physical senescence. Surely the world is getting worse: nothing tastes as good as it did when we were six, everything hurts all the time, and our matured gonads drive us into frenzies of bizarre, self-destructive behavior.

Lapsarianism dominates the Abrahamic faiths. I have an Orthodox friend whose tradition holds that each generation of rabbis is necessarily less perfect than the rabbis that came before, since each generation is more removed from the perfection of the Garden. Therefore, no rabbi is allowed to overturn any of his forebears’ wisdom, since they are all, by definition, smarter than him.

The natural endpoint of Lapsarianism is apocalypse. If things get worse, and worse, and worse, eventually they’ll just run out of worseness. Eventually, they’ll bottom out, a kind of rotten death of the universe when Lapsarian entropy hits the nadir and takes us all with it.

Running counter to Lapsarianism is progressivism: the Enlightenment  ideal of a world of great people standing on the shoulders of giants. Each of us contributes to improving the world’s storehouse of knowledge (and thus its capacity for bringing joy to all of us), and our descendants and proteges take our work and improve on it.

The very idea of “progress” runs counter to the idea of Lapsarianism and the fall: it is the idea that we, as a species, are falling in reverse, combing back the wild tangle of entropy into a neat, tidy braid.

Of course, progress must also have a boundary condition — if only because we eventually run out of imaginary ways that the human condition can improve. And science fiction has a name for the upper bound of progress, a name for the progressive apocalypse:

We call it the Singularity.

Vernor Vinge’s Singularity takes place when our technology reaches a stage that allows us to “upload” our minds into software, run them at faster, hotter speeds than our neurological wetware substrate allows for, and create multiple, parallel instances of ourselves. After the Singularity, nothing is predictable because everything is possible. We will cease to be human and become (as the title of Rudy Rucker’s next novel would have it) Postsingular.

The Singularity is what happens when we have so much progress that we run out of progress. It’s the apocalypse that ends the human race in rapture and joy. Indeed, Ken MacLeod calls the Singularity “the rapture of the nerds,” an apt description for the mirror-world progressive version of the Lapsarian apocalypse.

At the end of the day, both progress and the fall from grace are illusions. The central thesis of “Stumbling on Happiness” is that human beings are remarkably bad at predicting what will make us happy. Our predictions are skewed by our imperfect memories and our capacity for filling the future with the present day.

The future is gnarlier than futurism. NCC-1701 probably wouldn’t send out transporter-equipped drones — instead, it would likely find itself on missions whose ethos, mores, and rationale are largely incomprehensible to us, and so obvious to its crew that they couldn’t hope to explain them.

Science fiction is the literature of the present, and the present is the only era that we can hope to understand, because it’s the only era that lets us check our observations and predictions against reality.”

Charles: Frankly, I’m tired of the Singularity. I already wrote one substantial book about it (“Accelerando”) between 1998 and 2004. It’s been a hot new topic in hard SF since 1987 or thereabouts. Enough is enough: from my perspective, “Rapture of the Nerds” is both a coda to “Accelerando”, and a cautionary warning, and my final word on the subject (unless something new happens that radically reframes it).


How far off do you think it is?

Cory: It’s not.

Charles: I think the singularity happened between 70,000 and 200,000 years ago, with the development of human culture and language. Or, arguably, between 11,000 and 14,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture. Whether there’s any prospect for an AI singularity is … well, it depends on what you mean by AI; and I suspect the answer is that it makes about as much sense to talk about an AI singularity as it does to talk about the television singularity, or the weaving machine singularity. Individual new technologies don’t cause step-changes in consciousness or render the entire future of humanity unpredictable.
Charlie, I remember interviewing you several years ago and you pointed out the concept of getting lost was something which, with location technology, about to die out. You’re batting a solid wicket here so what do you think is the next societal concept to go?

Charles: Quite possibly privacy. (Facebook are doing their best to abolish it. Note: I am not a fan of Facebook. I think this is the sort of dangerous technology-mediated social change that we really ought to be thinking about regulating, and regulating hard.)


Cory, you’re up. What do you think will be the next societal construct we lose?

Cory: I think we’re approaching a crisis point in the distribution of dividends from automation. As with the Luddite crisis of the industrial revolution, automation is obviating a ton of labour (including highly skilled jobs), and the dividends from those productivity gains are being hoarded by capital — the 1% are getting richer, the rest are relegated to increasing precarity as they compete for scarcer jobs and real wages plummet. This can’t last forever.


What changed in the process?

Cory: That implies that we planned things! We didn’t — the story was an emergent property of our mutual one-upmanship and attempts to amuse one another.


Did anything not make the cut?

Cory: Oh, there are a few bits and pieces that we excised, but nothing substantial.


What’s the moment you’re proudest of in the book?

Cory: I like the knock-knock joke about the Singularity at the beginning of PAROLE BOARD


Are you considering working together again?

Cory: Sure — the major obstacle isn’t desire, its diaries. We’re both pretty busy and finding a time of mutual non-occupation is a major undertaking.


What’s next for both of you?

Cory: Titan will soon publish PIRATE CINEMA, a YA novel that came out in the USA last autumn, to critical/commercial success:

Trent McCauley is sixteen, brilliant, and obsessed with one thing: making movies on his computer by reassembling footage from popular films he downloads from the net. In the dystopian near-future Britain where Trent is growing up, this is more illegal than ever; the punishment for being caught three times is that your entire household’s access to the internet is cut off for a year, with no appeal.

Trent’s too clever for that to happen. Except it does, and it nearly destroys his family. Shamed and shattered, Trent runs away to London, where he slowly he learns the ways of staying alive on the streets. This brings him in touch with a demimonde of artists and activists who are trying to fight a new bill that will criminalize even more harmless internet creativity, making felons of millions of British citizens at a stroke. Things look bad. Parliament is in power of a few wealthy media conglomerates. But the powers-that-be haven’t entirely reckoned with the power of a gripping movie to change people’s minds….

Next from TITAN is HOMELAND, the sequel to my novel LITTLE BROTHER, which just spent 4 weeks on the NYT bestseller list:

In Cory Doctorow’s wildly successful Little Brother, young Marcus Yallow was arbitrarily detained and brutalized by the government in the wake of a terrorist attack on San Francisco—an experience that led him to become a leader of the whole movement of technologically clued-in teenagers, fighting back against the tyrannical security state.

A few years later, California’s economy collapses, but Marcus’s hacktivist past lands him a job as webmaster for a crusading politician who promises reform. Soon his former nemesis Masha emerges from the political underground to gift him with a thumbdrive containing a Wikileaks-style cable-dump of hard evidence of corporate and governmental perfidy. It’s incendiary stuff—and if Masha goes missing, Marcus is supposed to release it to the world. Then Marcus sees Masha being kidnapped by the same government agents who detained and tortured Marcus years earlier.

Marcus can leak the archive Masha gave him—but he can’t admit to being the leaker, because that will cost his employer the election. He’s surrounded by friends who remember what he did a few years ago and regard him as a hacker hero. He can’t even attend a demonstration without being dragged onstage and handed a mike. He’s not at all sure that just dumping the archive onto the Internet, before he’s gone through its millions of words, is the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, people are beginning to shadow him, people who look like they’re used to inflicting pain until they get the answers they want. Fast-moving, passionate, and as current as next week, Homeland is every bit the equal of Little Brother—a paean to activism, to courage, to the drive to make the world a better place.

I’m working on a novella called THE MAN WHO SOLD THE MOON for Neal Stephenson’s Heiroglyphics project with Arizona State University — it’s about hackers who land a 3D printer on the moon and spend a generation remotely printing out a habitat for their descendants to occupy.

I’m also planning a prequel to DOWN AND OUT IN THE MAGIC KINGDOM, my first novel, which came out 10 years ago.

Finally, my agent is shopping my recently completed nonfiction book about copyright, called INFORMATION DOESN’T WANT TO BE FREE.


Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross is out now, Titan Books, £7.99. This review/ interview was posted as part of the Rapture of the Nerds Mind-bending Blog Tour. For more details visit:

The Rapture of the Nerds is peppered with references to pop-culture staples (The Matrix, Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy amongst others). To be in with a chance of winning a SIGNED copy of Rapture of the Nerds tweet the fictions piece of technology that you would most want let loose in the real world @doctorow @cstross @titanbooks #RaptureoftheNerds. The co-authors will vote for their favourite fifteen pieces of tech and each top tweeter will be sentenced to a free copy. The Jury is still out. Good luck.

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