I am writing about Charles Stross because of the upcoming Picocon science fiction convention, which he will be attending as one of the Guests of Honour. He has contributed to the Science Fiction and Fantasy field with his novels, his blogging, and his roleplaying work.
Of these three things, the roleplaying work is perhaps the least notable. Stross worked on first edition Dungeons and Dragons, and created some of the game’s iconic monsters. Drawing from the works of Moorcock and Martin, Stross created the Githyanki: cruel and impious mind-controlling slavers that lurk in underground caves and seek to kill their old racial enemies. The Githyaki are still a part of D&D, and have appeared in the Neverwinter Nights 2 and Baldur’s Gate II computer games, but Stross no longer writes for roleplaying games.
Stross (and various guests) also blog on the popular antipope.org site on the subjects of science fiction, Stross’s convention attendance, futurism, and international relations. Stross has also posted an autobiography on his blog, which I will not try to replicate here. Stross can describe his life much better than I can; this article is better used for commentary.
On the topic of international relations, Stross describes himself as “just an interested layman”. His opinion, as a layman, is relatively informed and his writing is populated by many links to other parts of the internet.
Futurism is addressed in many articles, mentioning such topics as the singularity, Bitcoin, the internet of things, space colonisation, and a judge who masturbated while sitting in court. Stross manages to discuss futurism with far more attention to evidence, so the general quality of Stross’s writing in these essays is better than in his political essays.
Likewise, when Stross discusses writing, and the publishing industry, he does so as a knowledgeable insider. When Stross makes a statement about publishing or science fiction, he does so in a community that is interested in and follows his words. His articles generate interest, and almost every one of them will have extensive commentary on other blogs.
Of course, Stross’s blog might never have grown to such popularity were it not for his very notable writing. I have not read all of his works, so I shall confine my commentary to those that I have. For those who wish to read his works many are available online, and almost all published on paper can be found in the science fiction library in the Beit West Basement.
Charles Stross won the Locus award in 2005 for writing the Accelerando, a compilation of nine short stories. Stross’s technical skill as a writer was less developed in Accelerando than later on, but his ideas are well worth reading.
Over three generations the dysfunctional Macx family lives through the transformation of human identity and society as technology transfers sentience from the natural brain to the synthetic computer. As the series goes on, each generation finds themselves falling behind the more aware and efficient intelligences they create. Stross is not particularly optimistic: people are not necessarily protected from the future, and technology creates a new economy, where posthuman intelligences ruthlessly exploit every resource they can find.
From Accelerando, and those other Stross novels that include them, my most vivid memories are the sex scenes. His sex writing is not titillating, but is generally useful for character development. The sex in Stross’ novels is often out of the mainstream, and BDSM elements feature heavily. Seeing the characters enjoy unconventional sex gives the reader an interesting exercise in empathy, giving a route to empathy through their private desires.
The Eschaton novels involve a space opera setting. Faster than light travel is developed, and can even be used for time travel. However, the “Eschaton”, an entity from the transhuman future, acts to prevent violations of continuity that might threaten its own existence.
Nonetheless as colonies with different technology interact, causing huge culture shocks, desperate and ignorant people take risks that put many worlds in danger. The plot of the novels is like that of a spy thriller as UN agents try to avert catastrophe, while secondary characters describe the culture shock and transformation. Once again, the sex scenes are memorable, but I think they are more like an out of place comedy than important character development.
The Halting State duology are police thrillers, set amongst the near future, post-independence, Scottish police. This isn’t a reflection of wishful thinking on the part of Stross for Scottish independence, but an attempt to create a cool situation to write about. On his blog Stross has complained that far too much in the _Halting State _series seems to be coming true. The novelty of the police using World of Warcraft to spy on criminals lost its lustre to Stross when he found out that the NSA did exactly that, so there will be no more sequels.
The novels are much like other police procedurals, but Stross’s contributions are not to be underestimated. The first novel, also called Halting State, is suffused with Stross’ wonderful imagination, with interesting “crimes that don’t even exist yet” keeping the reader intellectually engaged.
The sequel, Rule 34, is much more disappointing. The novel commits the sin of using ‘evil sex’ to characterise the villain, which is dull, and relies on this ‘evil sex’ extensively. Rule 34 also attracted critisism from Christopher Priest when it was nominated for a Hugo. Priest’s criticism was brief and denigrating, so I mention it more for the sake of history than because it is valuable. Naturally the criticism inspired plenty of discussion, and anyone wishing to particularly flatter Stross might wear a t-shirt made in response, which bears the caption: “INTERNET PUPPY NO CAN HAZ NOMS”.
Even more contemporary than the Halting State duology is the Laundry series. The series is a very amusing look at modern bureaucracy struggling to deal with magical horror; a modern take on the Cthulu mythos’ theme of “knowledge that is too terrible to tell”. The Laundry series loves to talk about modern management and office politics, and the struggle of an IT professional turned into a special agent.
The first novel, The Atrocity Archives is a good read if you like the idea of a technical professional griping about bad management and saving the world with a few fantastic creatures thrown in.
The Laundry really gets interesting with the second book in the series, The Jennifer Morgue. The book is an intelligent and very aware parody of James Bond novels. The Jennifer Morgue also benefits from social commentary. It questions and challenges the sexual cliche’s of Flemming’s novels and the standards still held in many of the inspired works.
Much more subtle is the racial commentary of The Jennifer Morgue. H P Lovecraft is rightly remembered as an excellent horror author, but modern readers often choose to ignore the less desirable underlying themes of his work. Lovecraft was a racist and much of the horror of his work was based on his fear of racial mixing, cultural decay, inherited evils and other discredited concepts.
In Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth (one of his best works), the fishy Deep Ones desire to interbreed with humans. Their children carry the unfortunate racial features of their parents, and eventually mutate into undersea creatures. While some critics have interpreted_ The Shadow Over Innsmouth_ as being about Lovecraft’s acceptance of racial mixing, and overcoming horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth is still clearly about the horror of being mixed race. To paraphrase George Orwell, while we may dislike racism in Lovecraft’s work, and wish it were not there, it would be absurd to deny its existence. The Jennifer Morgue also uses the Deep Ones, but the racial criticism is no longer directed against them, but against the prejudice they receive for the circumstances of their birth.
The Jennifer Morgue is followed by The Fuller Memorandum. This is much like The Atrocity Archives, but in every way better. The alien intelligences are more intriguing, the office politics more dynamic and cutthroat, the action faster and more exciting.
The Laundry series has also had several short stories published online. I will not go into these in detail, save to say that Equoid is absolutely excellent. If, after reading this, you are interested in Charles Stross then I suggest you get online and read Equoid.
At this point there is little left to say. Stross has written many other books, but unfortunately I have either not read them or have nothing to say. This article was written to give a summary outlook of Charles Stross’s work, I have nothing to conclude. I hope that I have caught your attention, and I look forward to seeing him at Picocon.