Q&A with Charles Stross + Giveaway

In case you missed it, The Nightmare Stacks is out, and I absolutely loved it.

Well, Charles Stross took some time to answer a few questions about The Nightmare Stacks, and if you don't read his blog it's a nice little glimpse into his incredibly brilliant and complex brain.  I made an attempt to come up with questions he hasn't already answered countless times or talked about on his blog, and I think I met with mixed success.  I will say this, he did drop some hints about The Delirium Brief, and gave some splendid answers to my inquiries.

The Nightmare Stacks marks the 7th book of the Laundry Files, and CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is no longer simply a looming future.  It's here.  Right in the middle of it all is former merchant bandker and under-prepared neophyte Laundry Agent (and f neophyte PHANG, but that's a different story) Alex.  The most pressing things on Alex's mind dealing with his v-parasite, hoping his new roomates (Pinky and the Brain) don't blow everything up, learning how to interact with the lovely but rather odd Cassie, and how to tell his parents about his various life changes.  Things are about to get rather... messy in Leeds.

I'm running a giveaway contest through July 5th, if you haven't entered already, you can enter here.

Hello!  First off, thank you so much for your time.  Nightmare Stacks is brilliant, and I've been eagerly awaiting it especially since you posted "let's just say that when the Deep Ones are anxiously offering you their assistance in dealing with your problem, you know you've got a Problem."

You've discussed on your blog the issue with a series and the main character leveling up, and in particular that being one of the reasons you wanted to step away from Bob for a few books.  Mo was distinctly different, but still both powerful and experienced.  Alex, on the other hand, is newer to the Laundry than we've ever seen Bob, even if he has a few tricks of his own.  What was it like to write an organizational neophyte at this stage of the CASE NIGHTMARE progressions?

It was a very deliberate move. Many ongoing SF/F series works suffer from the problem of the protagonist "leveling up" -- "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" must be one of the dominant cliches of genre fiction, and unless you want to be writing about a PTSD-afflicted physical mess by book six, it's probably unavoidable. But with experience comes power, and that's a problem too: by book five Bob wasn't merely formidable, he knew too much about the way the world of the Laundry Files worked. Book six ("The Annihilation Score") was intentionally narrated by Bob's wife, Mo, as a faux-reality check on Bob's rampant self-delusional perspective. Bob *is* actually a damaged protagonist, albeit a very strong one with rampant self-protective delusions; Mo sees past them, although she, too, has big problems ("The Annihilation Score" was a nervous breakdown novel, with added superheroes). So in an attempt to clear the slate I switched to Alex.

At the outset of "The Nightmare Stacks" Alex is actually in pretty much the same position Bob was in at the start of "The Atrocity Archive". The big difference is that we're a decade further into the grand conjunction known to the Laundry as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN; occult weirdness is crawling out of the woodwork on all sides, and the threats they have to contend with are much more dangerous. Alex, as a PHANG (a victim of the paranormal medical condition that vampire legends are based loosely on) is in a much stronger position than Bob was, but he's still grappling with his own ignorance. Meanwhile, the author had a decade and a half to work on the background and underlying story; there's an ensemble cast who have been introduced over half a dozen earlier books to put Alex in perspective.

Did you learn anything writing The Nightmare Stacks?  You stated a deliberate intention to subvert certain overbearing trends, what challenges and pitfalls did you encounter (both writing and post publication, as you've kept an active discussion on your blog)?

"The Nightmare Stacks" set out to hit several targets. One of the first was to break the Laundry Files out of its rut of being All About Bob. Arguably "The Annihilation Score" did that ... but as Mo and Bob are a couple, some readers might mistake it for merely being a chance to look at the back of Bob's head. Whereas the Laundry Files has grown over time to be about more than just Bob Howard; and I wanted to make a clean break. Bob plays a very minor part in this book, and it's also mostly narrated in the third person -- unlike Bob's first person monologues. Consequently the voice of the book is rather different.

The second goal was to mark a key turning point in the overall series. At the beginning of "The Nightmare Stacks" the Laundry is still part of the secret state, trying desperately to maintain its plausible invisibility. By the end of this book, that's no longer possible: the TV news crews are out in force and questions are being asked in Parliament. (Indeed, the next novel, "The Delirium Brief" -- which is back to Bob -- opens with Bob being grilled by a TV news anchor ...) After "The Nightmare Stacks" the series takes a different direction as the underlying long-term story arc comes to the foreground and the elder gods return.

Elves ... as with the previous few books, this novel was set up to integrate non-mythos chunks of supernatural/urban fantasy lore into the Laundryverse: in this case, elves. But the elves are about as Tolkeinesque and noble as the unicorns in "Equoid" are cuddly. As ever, a chunk of evolutionary psychology crops up in their design and the background to their culture: what would a hominin species with a strong predisposition for ritual magic (as developed in the Laundry Files) actually look like, and how would they run their society?

I had a few other objectives along the way, too, although they're less obvious. A personal irritant is the way incidental love interest characters get played in fiction; we're all over-familiar with the manic pixie dream girl trope, for example: what would it *really* look like? Again, another familiar irritant is the way magical warfare is treated in fiction. We have Arthur C. Clarke's law to remind us that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; but that law works equally well in reverse, and the armies of an ancient magical civilization are going to look less like a Renn Faire and more like a NATO-spec armoured brigade with death spells and close air support dragons ...

You seem to stay well on top of technology trends and forecasts, both in your fiction and on your blog.  Has progressing technology changed your plans for the series?  What did you account for?  Did anything surprise you?

Yes, progressing technology has changed small aspects of the series -- but it's been a gradual change. I wrote Bob's first five novels from 1998 to 2012 and he aged in line with the real world, moving from a crude cellphone and a bulky duct-taped digital camera with basilisk capabilities to an early smartphone -- a Palm Treo 650 -- and then an iPhone as these things were introduced. The big new angle is the internet and streaming video (which played a vital role in the villain's plans in "The Annihilation Score") and will be ever more significant later on -- but here in the UK we've had streaming CCTV since the 90s, so the general shape of the urban surveillance landscape hasn't changed overmuch.

Developing tech makes it much harder for me to write near future SF than near-present fantasy, frankly. Hence the non-appearance of a third near-future Scottish police procedural novel after "Halting State" and "Rule 34". The UK is also currently going through a period of insane political instability that will probably result in the break-up of a three-century-old union within the next couple of years: that sort of chaos makes fantasy or far-future SF an easier call than predictive-mode near future stuff. By the time things settle down I expect to be pushing sixty years old, and I think that sort of fiction is a young writer's game.

While you've definitely written post-human characters before, but I think this is the first time I've read you writing non-naturalized human type intelligence as a narrative voice.  What was the experience like?  Anything about it particularly fun or challenging?

Cassie isn't non-human; she's a closely related sub-species, about as similar to our own as we are to the Neanderthals. She's actually more human than the human-identifying androids of "Saturn's Children" and "Neptune's Brood", so I had a fair bit of prior experience to draw on. The real challenge with the People is that their entire social organisational structure by-passes human-style cooperative and tribal models and instead relies on hierarchical magical compulsion -- what is it like to grow up in a ruthless dictatorship where alternatives are literally impossible to conceive of, and there's a strong selection pressure for sociopathy? Agent First is actually insane in the context of her own species, insofar as an overdeveloped sense of empathy -- vital to a deep cover spy -- is a vulnerability and a character flaw among psychopaths. But by the same token, it made her easier for me to write as a sympathetic character. Meanwhile, Alex isn't human either. But he hasn't fully internalized that yet: he relates to his PHANG syndrome vampirism as to an unfortunate disease, rather than a source of superhuman power. (Which in turn makes him easier to write as a sympathetic protagonist.)

The real character-writing challenge is the one I'm facing in "The Delirium Brief", in dealing with a return to Bob -- a Bob who is in deep denial about being in effect a walking nuclear weapon: he still identifies as human, but while Alex's powers are limited to his close proximity, Bob is the new Eater of Souls. And in the context of what he's up against in the next novel, he's as out-gunned as Alex is in the current one: but that, as they say, is another story (and one you'll have to wait until June 2017 for).

Who is Charles Stross

Charles Stross, 51, is a full-time science fiction writer and resident of Edinburgh, Scotland. The author of six Hugo-nominated novels and winner of the 2005, 2010, and 2014 Hugo awards for best novella, he has won numerous other awards and been translated into at least 12 other languages.

He can be found online in a number of places, but his blog is a fantastic starting point.


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