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The Rapture of the Nerds: An Interview with Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow

18/04/2013 11:47 BST | Updated 17/06/2013 10:12 BST

Science fiction writers Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow have teamed up for this sprawling adventure that sees curmudgeonly Welshman Huw receive a summons for Tech Jury Service. Along with his fellow jury members, a motley crew of quirky characters, Huw must decide whether the latest technological invention should be let loose on the world, or whether they are too dangerous. But, like a discombobulated Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, Huw soon discovers he's not in Kansas anymore...

Here the pair talk about the book and their collaboration.

How did you come to work together?

CS: Back around 2002, I was thinking about collaborations and, for some reason, was talking to Cory in email. The idea of writing a story together came about: I think I suggested it first, but I might be wrong.

CD: Charlie and I had not met but I was living in San Francisco and editing the website Boingboing. I had read his work in Asimov'shttp://www.asimovs.com magazine and other places, and we got to corresponding. He asked if I was interested in working on a story with him and I really liked his work, so I said yes. He sent me a 500,000 word chunk the first part of Rapture of the Nerds, that was Jury Service. I rewrote what he sent, he rewrote what I had written and we went back and forth that way. There was minimal discussion as to where we were headed.

How did the concept for The Rapture of the Nerds come about?

CS: It didn't. Instead, I rooted around in my folder full of hopeful starts and found a 1,000- word long beginning that didn't go anywhere. I kicked it across to Cory, who added another thousand words and threw it back at me. Ping, pong, repeat. After about 5,000 words, we had a dialog going in the shape of a story, and began chatting about where it should go - but the final direction wasn't definite until we already had half a novel (two novellas) written and sold.

In the broader sense, though, The Rapture of the Nerds (based on a disparaging description of the singularity, by a sceptic whose name eludes me) is a reaction to other singularity-focussed sci-fi. Is it a good science-fiction idea, or just warmed-over mediaeval Christian theology in scientific drag?

CD: The concept emerged from the story. Charlie had the idea of the singularity story, the idea that as time goes by and as we achieve some kind of machine transcendence, where we can leave our physical bodies behind and become beings of pure software. This was the inverse of the Christian fundamentalist Rapture story where the pious go to heaven and the sinners are left on Earth. Ken Clarke had called the singularity version the Rapture of the Nerds, though I hadn't heard of that before we started working on the story. In the singularity version, all the people who are thought of as sinners or sceptics, those people disappear and all that's left behind are the religious people or environmentalists, or those who have an anti-technological bent that causes them to reject this kind of transcendence.

You both have successful solo careers. Why collaborate with another writer?

CS: For shits and giggles. And also for the joy of not working on one's own all the time.

CD: I don't do a lot of collaborating. It's not out of any particular animus towards working with other writers. I quite enjoy it, it's always nice to see what you can bring out in another writer and what someone else can bring out in you. At its best, collaboration is always a synthesis of the two writers and it transcends what either writer can do on their own. I don't do a lot of it as it tends to be very time-consuming. There's the famous quote that in a collaboration both of the writers do 75 per cent of the work. I think that's true, there's the energy you have to expend in making sure you're both on the same page. When it works, it's really terrific. I'm really happy with how it turned out.

Can you describe the experience of working with another writer? Would you both do it again?

CS: Yes/no/maybe. It's both rewarding and frustrating. If there's any one reason why I would't do it again, it's that by the time you finish the work, it turns out that you both did 66 per cent of it. Or maybe 75 per cent of it. It's definitely not an easy thing to do!

CD: When I have a problem with a book that I'm working on, I tend to write it out. Maybe it's superstition but I never really talk about what I'm writing, I just write it. With Charlie there's a lot more discussion than I'm accustomed to. In some ways that's a major difference than how I work on my own. It's nice to challenge myself to work in that way.

How did you divide the work? Did you, for example, plan the book together?

CS: The book wasn't planned, it just sort of happened in the process of a dialog we had in email in parallel with the writing. ("What are we doing here?" "I dunno. Maybe throw in a psychopathic clown and a shape-shifting, sentient banana?" "No, dimwit, I meant what are our thematic reference points?" "Hmm, maybe we could riff off Nietzsche and Vinge ..." "Hit it!")

CD: Every now and again we would have some major reversals where we'd get down a promising alley that turned into a cul de sac, particularly in the second part, Appeals Court. There was a lot of cross direction.

How long did the book take to write? Did the process take longer than working solo?

CS: The book took eight years of mostly doing nothing to write. Because it actually got written in three stages: firstly, as a novella called "Jury Service" (originally published by scifi.com, the forerunner to SyFy, in 2003); then a novella called "Appeals Court" (published back-to-back with "Jury Service" in Argosy magazine in 2006); then, finally, when we couldn't dodge the bullet any longer, a third extra-long chunk, Supreme Court, which turned it into a complete novel (circa 2010-2011).

CD: Obviously we didn't work on it for eight years in total. Appeals Court took the longest to write as it had the most reversals. When we started writing, I lived on the West Coast and Charlie lived in Edinburgh and there was this big time zone gap. I thought there would be a big time lag but Charlie is very nocturnal and I am a creature of the day and an early riser. So I'd get up in the morning and find that he'd added his 1000 words overnight.

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of working with someone else?

CS: Advantage: you get someone to blame when it doesn't work properly who isn't staring back at you in the mirror. Disadvantage: they get someone to blame who isn't ... (etc). Actually, I tell a lie. Playing the blame game is a really bad idea when you're trying to make something work. On the other hand, you have to make compromises with your creative vision. Novel-length fiction is one of the few major creative fields where the author is used to having full control, and it's a bit jarring to lose that autonomy.

CD: We did something with this book that was transcendent, it was more than either of us could do on our own. There are some passages where I literally don't know who wrote them. That's quite cool and exciting.

What are your favourite books? Can you talk about your influences?

CS: Iain Banks. Bruce Sterling. Principia Discordia. And caffeine.

CD: I'm a 10,000 books guy, not a three favourite books guy. We've both been called post-cyber punk writers, I don't think that's wrong. I was greatly influenced by James Patrick Kelly, who gave me good advice about finding the difficult emotional stuff in a story that makes you uncomfortable, that "sit down at the keyboard and open a vein" business. Judith Merrill was my mentor early on. She was a great sci-fi writer and founded the largest science fiction library in the world in Toronto, where I grew up. She was profoundly influential on my career and writing.

What are you working on at the moment, individually?

CS: I'm on vacation right now, but when I get back, I'll be picking up my work in progress - a trilogy examining the relationship between our global political weltanschauung - the post-Enlightenment Jacobin anti-monarchist consensus - and economic development, through the vehicle of a near-future, science-fiction, techno-thriller set in several parallel universes. That, or I might just take some time out to finish a novella about unicorns. (And H.P. Lovecraft. But mainly unicorns.)

CD: I am about to start work on a novella called The Man Who Sold the Moon part of a series that have the same titles as famous science-fiction stories but where I try to reinterpret their core ideas through contemporary science fiction. It's for the Hieroglyph Project for Arizona State University, plausible sci-fi written in collaboration with scientists. The story I'm working on is about people who print out habitats on the moon using autonomous 3D printers. When that's done, I'm going to write a prequel to my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdomhttp://www.amazon.com. I'm still at the superstitious, don't-want-to-talk about it phase, but it will be about what happens when automation makes most work superfluous.

The Rapture of the Nerds is available from Amazon.com and all good book shops.