Interview: Cory Doctorow

rapture_UK%20coverDescribed by Entertainment Weekly as “the William Gibson of his generation,” Cory Doctorow is a New York Times bestselling author, blogger and technology activist in favour of The Creative Commons Licence, a law that allows for the free circulation of electronic copies of works of literature. His collaboration with Edinburgh-based multiple award-winning science-fiction legend Charles Stross, The Rapture of the Nerds, has just been published by Titan Books, and Doctorow took some time out from his vacation to answer a few questions from Paul Simpson…

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How did the collaboration come about?

I was living in San Francisco; Charlie was living in Edinburgh. We had never met. He sent me an email and asked if I’d like to collaborate on this. I had read his work; he’d commented on [Doctorow’s website] Boing Boing, he’d read my work. I said yes.

He sent me the first 500 or 1,000 words of ‘Jury Service’, the first chunk of the novel. I read them, rewrote them, added 500-1000 words and sent it back. He did the same to what I’d added, and back and forth we went. That came out very successfully, sold immediately and did really well.

‘Appeals Court’, the one that followed up from it, wasn’t as artistically successful, I would say. In the first one, we were a lot more sympatico; in the second one, we both had different ideas on how we wanted the story to unfold. They differed fairly strongly, and we didn’t really talk them out; instead, we tried to write them out which is how I tend to solve these problems. This is not at all a reflection on Charlie; it’s entirely a reflection on my foibles. We literally had the character running in one direction, and then running back in another direction, and back and forth as we tried to wrestle control for him. Thankfully all that stuff came out in the rewrite we did as part of producing the book, and tightened up into a surprisingly successful little novella.

We wrote the third one, ‘Parole Board’, very recently – we wrote it last year, and it was much simpler, and much less dramatic to write, because we were much further along, and these characters had had a chance to marinade with us. We got to a point where we could just shoot it back and forth, and having first rewritten the first two together, the third one came very easily.

How long did it take to write?

Charlie says six years; I remember seven. It doesn’t really matter – six or seven years in total from start to finish. But of course we didn’t spend seven years working on this; there was with a bunch of hiatuses, because it came about as three distinct projects. The actual writing itself for ‘Jury Service’ and for ‘Parole Board’ went very quickly – you can divide the number of words by a thousand, and that’s how many days it took, because we were doing about a thousand words a day on both of those. On the other hand, ‘Appeals Court’ probably took about twice as long, not least, because there were long periods where either Charlie or I hung up on it, and said ‘I don’t know what to do here’, and sat with the latest volley in our inbox trying to figure out what to do about it.

The book has a voice that appears to be neither Stross nor Doctorow, but an amalgam. Did that develop during cross-editing, or from discussion beforehand?

The voice, such as it is, did not develop from any kind of deliberate decision; it was definitely an organic outgrowth of the writing process and overwriting one another. This book had almost no premeditation: I think you can safely assume that anything you find in it is a happy accident, and not the result of planning, which is kind of how I like to write. It’s my favourite way of approaching fiction projects.

The book has been published in traditional form, and is available under a Creative Commons Licence – do you think that the two can always go hand in hand, or does a free version undercut a publisher’s interest in the work?

Charles-Stross

Co-author Charles Stross

Let me start by saying that whether or not there is a Creative Commons release, there is always a free version. Every book published in Britain or America has a free version on the internet that you can go and download right now in about three clicks: anything people love, they’ll copy.

The difference between a Creative Commons Licence book and one that isn’t isn’t that one is available for free, and the other one isn’t. All books are available for free. The difference is, in the case of the Creative Commons Licence books, the authors have performed an act of public trust and generosity that creates in the minds of some readers a social contract that causes them to reciprocate. So I think it’s very good commercial sense, and artistically it’s very satisfying – in the 21st century, anything people love will be copied. There is no future where copying goes down; this is as hard as copying is going to be for ever and ever. Your grandchildren will marvel at how bloody hard it was to copy in 2013; they’ll ask you at Christmas dinner to tell them the horror stories about the days when you couldn’t buy six thumb drives for a pound in the checkout aisle at Tesco’s, each of which could hold all the movies that were ever made, and all the music ever recorded, and all the songs every sung and the words ever written.

As a result, if you’re making art that’s 21st century art, you should really assume that it’s going to be copied and if you’re going to make that art contemporary art, you should design it to be copied, otherwise you’re not making it contemporary art, you’re making retro art.

Retro art is fine: if you want to go be the armourer at a 1066 re-enactment, by all means go off and do it. As Frank Zappa once said, ‘It’s the 20th century – anything you can do to have a good time, let’s get on with it, so long as it doesn’t cause a murder.’ It wasn’t only good advice in the 20th century, it’s even better advice in the 21st. However, if you’re going to make art that is contemporary, and science fiction should be, if not futuristic, at least contemporary, then you should assume and design it for copying.

Beyond the artistic and the commercial dimensions, there is a moral dimension. Every day parliaments, congresses, legislatures are passing dreadfully harmful laws that are aimed at curbing piracy that make it easier to censor, surveil and control the internet and the devices connected to it. All of those moves have dramatic consequences on wider society that have nothing to do with fighting piracy but everything to do with how we live our lives in a civil society. If you don’t allow for the free reproduction of your works by audiences – not necessarily by commercial entities – then you are part of the problem. You are part of the reason that censorship and surveillance and control are being added to the internet. I think artists have a moral duty not to be part of that problem; if your method of producing or commercialising your art requires censorship and surveillance, you’re doing art wrong.

Cory Doctorw

Cory Doctorow: Photo by Jonathan Worth, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 JonathanWorth.com

I don’t really see uploading as a prediction, although I guess anything’s possible. The thing that interests me about uploading is not whether it will happen or not; it’s what it says about society that the idea has gained so much currency. Why is it that we pay attention to uploading in 2013?

I think the answer is best understood by starting from the ideas that we had before the Enlightenment. The predominant worldview of religions then was lapsarian, the idea that things would get progressively worse, until they could get no more worse, whereupon we would experience an apocalypse.

I think there’s an easy reason to understand why that would come about: first of all, it seems natural if you’re some sort of Bronze Age mystic who has managed to attain the age of sixty or seventy, to assume that the world has been getting steadily worse through all of your years. After all, by that age, it’s very clear that everything used to taste better and smell better, and the children were certainly better behaved – Socrates said the world was going downhill because children didn’t know how to behave any more. So this is a motif that has been with us for a long time.

The mind recoils from an unbounded system: if you say that things are getting worse and worse, then the mind infers a boundary condition beyond which things can get no worse and that is the apocalypse.

Now along comes the Enlightenment, and the idea of progress, that things will get better and better, that we can stand on the shoulders of giants and experience continuous improvement, but once again, the mind recoils from the unbounded system, so we assume that if things get better and better, they must reach a point of total betterness, betterness beyond belief, at which point we will experience some kind of explosion, a none-more-better moment as Nigel Tufnel might have said on Spinal Tap.

I think there’s another reason to understand why that idea would have currency with technologists in the 21st century. Douglas Adams said, if it was invented before you were 18, it’s been there forever; if it was invented before you were 30, it’s the greatest thing ever and will revolutionise the world; and anything invented after that is probably terrible for society and should be banned immediately. I think if you are like me, and grew up on the cutting edge of technology – you were always the one that people came to to ask for advice and assistance about technology, and you derived a great deal of social capital and power from that relationship to technology – that you reach the point where you find technology hard to keep up, where, despite the fact that you are absolutely certain, as I am, that Facebook is a terrible awful f***ing thing, and that people who use it are idiots, the world insists on doing things that you can’t explain. As a result, it’s easy at that point to decide not that you have lost your currency with technology, but rather that technology has become impossible to understand, that we have reached the point of maximum technological acceleration, and that as a result, we are heading towards singularity.

Do you ever feel that you can go too far in the satirical vein – that the strength of the satire blunts the points you’re making?

Yes of course, as Nigel Tufnel says – once again quoting St Tufnel the Brave – there’s such a fine line between clever and stupid. There’s lots of bits of humour in the book, particularly that was published in the short story stuff, where in the rewrite that we did for the novel, we went back and actually toned it down rather a lot, places where I thought we had it too broad. In particular, I had become sensitised to the idea that people who talk with Southern accents are necessarily idiots; I think this is an unfortunate stereotype and that it borders on racism, and it’s not something I am proud of having done as much of in the first iteration of this book in the stories, and I’m glad we took most of that stuff out in the novel form.

Of the various changes and upgrades that are featured in the book, are they any that you would be seriously tempted to try yourself, were they available?

Oh I’d try it all! For godsake, I’m a neural interface beta tester if there ever was one! But I wouldn’t try it all, because I’m smart enough to know that we should; I’d try it all because I’m compulsive enough that I’ll end up doing so.

Are we likely to see a further collaboration between you both?

It’s always possible. You never know. The major barrier to collaboration between us these days is not our willingness but our diaries! It took us many years to find a time when neither of us was hard at work on deadline novels such that we could sit down and work out the final third of this book, or the third section, which is actually half of it. It will likely take at least that much time to do it again, because it’s not as if our lives are getting less busy: I have a daughter and a family, and a busy schedule of activist stuff that I do, as well as the books I write and the entrepreneurial things I do, and the website I edit, Boing Boing. Charlie has a couple or more books every year that he’s writing, and his own family that he wants to spend time with, so it’s tricky to peel out the time to do that. But that said, it was enormous fun doing it, and I certainly hope we get a chance to do it again.

Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross is out now, Titan Books, £7.99.  and can be ordered from Amazon.co.uk by clicking here

This interview was posted as part of the Rapture of the Nerds Mind-bending Blog Tour. For more details visit: http://titanbooks.com/blog/rapture-nerds-mind-bending-blog-tour/

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 fictional piece of technology that you would most want let loose in the real world @doctorow @csross @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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  1. Pingback: Don’t miss our new interview with Cory Doctorow! | Sci-Fi Bulletin - April 17, 2013

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