Interview: Cthulhu helps Charles Stross cover the Cold War

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Adam-Troy Castro
Dec 14, 2012

Charles Stross's new story collection, Wireless, is an impressive cross-section of his work, incorporating near-future satire, far-future space opera, humorous SF, alternate history and Lovecraftian cosmic horror, often mixed together for extra effect.

An especially fertile hybrid for Stross is that of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos with the Cold War spy thriller, as in the stories "A Colder War" and "Down on the Farm" and, by association, the major novella "Missile Gap."

"I grew up in the UK during the latter stages of the Cold War," said Stross. "Britain is relatively compact, and much closer to the borders of the USSR than anywhere in North America. Orwell satirized the UK as 'Airstrip One' in 1984 for a reason—much of its role during the upheavals of the 20th century has been to provide a giant, unsinkable aircraft carrier for the US military, moored off the coast of Europe. The Soviets knew this well, and had planned accordingly: from about 1960 onwards, in event of a world war the UK's destiny was to be pulverized by short-range nuclear weapons. (The government virtually gave up on civil defense in the mid-1970s, when their casualty estimates exceeded 90%.)

"As it is, I have never lived more than five miles from ground zero of a major strategic target. With that kind of background, it's very easy to see yourself as a small, frightened human being living in the shadow of great beings who are engaged in a titanic, existential struggle for control of the universe... and who can destroy you and yours in an instant for reasons you may never understand. And if that isn't a dead ringer for the Lovecraftian experience (never mind the Cold War thriller), what is?"

The intriguing alternate history tale "Unwirer," co-written with Cory Doctorow, looks at how, in the 1990s, the emerging Internet almost became the target of hostile U.S. Federal legislation. "It was originally written in response to an anthology who were looking for alternate histories in which science and technology had taken different courses; one in which the Internet in general was locked down and treated harshly actually looked quite likely at one point in 1994. And of course, even today, there are huge dangers facing those of us who use the Internet. It's become an indispensable communications medium, but at the same time, it's trivially easy to snoop on and survey (by design), and its very usefulness makes it a target. The current authoritarian crack-down in Iran should be a wake-up call; dissidents are being monitored and targeted on the basis of their emails, tweets, blog entries."

(On his collaborations with Doctorow, Stross says, "We've used email. Basically, one of us writes a chunk of text and mails it to the other, who edits and/or continues adding to it. It's a very crude, very basic, and consequently very easy way to work (and one that is platform-agnostic—it doesn't require either of us to use the same software—because raw email text is very much a technological lowest common denominator.)

"Trunk and Disorderly," an hilarious novelette set in a turbulent space-going future, highlights Stross's exceptional talent for science-fictional humor. "Being funny is hard work. 'Trunk and Disorderly'—I had this vision of writing another series of stories, like my Accelerando, only the comic prat-fall variety: the elevator pitch was 'Jeeves and Wooster in the 27th century.' However, it turns out that emulating P. G. Wodehouse is unbelievably hard. He manages to make blindfold unicycling over Niagara Falls while juggling kittens look easy! I ended up giving up after the one story, and switching to a somewhat easier style for the recent novel Saturn's Children.

"I tend to work on the principle that much humour relies on cognitive dissonance—on the foreground not matching the background, on the protagonist's response to a situation being inappropriate, and so on. Which is highly interesting in a science-fictional context, because so much of SF is geared around generating cognitive dissonance; the worlds we are depicting are not the world as it is. But we also have a tendency to normalize the bizarre, to adjust to weird circumstances ... when reading a space opera, you have to make the adjustment to taking interstellar empires and starships for granted.

"By using a judicious amount of humour, I try to remind the reader of the underlying cognitive dissonance; it might be a protagonist's internal monologue exposing a radically different viewpoint on part of the background, or it might be a way of highlighting the true horror of a ghastly situation (as in Bob Howard stories like 'Down on the Farm')—one of our responses to fear being to desensitize ourselves to it.

"Luckily I'm not a stand-up comedian, so I don't get the fear of standing on stage in front of a dead audience: my humorous pieces have to make it past an editor before they get exposed to the public. And some of the stuff that probably doesn't strike you as funny... well, let's just say I've got a weird sense of humour and I don't hold with laugh tracks: I think some of my best jokes ever went into 'A Colder War' and 'Missile Gap.'"

Stross shows, in "Missile Gap" and the excellent new novella "Palimpsest," particular skill at reconciling mortal and geological timescales in stories of the cosmic far future, at finding a human perspective on the passage of billions of years. "Fiction is the study of the human condition under imagined circumstances. (Emphasis on 'human.') You can write fiction about cosmic scale events and durations without people—but it tends not to engage the reader's interest. So what I try to do when constructing such a stage is to find some interesting human-scale events (a couple of colonists being sent to homestead a newly discovered continent; a young man, growing up, and the two loves of his life) that stretch across the stage, bringing home the scale. I'm guilty of infodumping—dropping cold-blooded lectures describing the stage-set into the middle of the human story—but I use that in order to add perspective.

"To use an analogy: a mainstream story might have a plot in which the protagonists at some point visit the Grand Canyon. It might be a throwaway: they pause for a burger at one of the observation points before driving off, and the Canyon itself merits barely a sentence—in this case, the reader is left to fill in the imaginary scenery using their own imagination. Or: the writer maybe spends a page or two in the middle of the human story, describing the scenery—'landscape porn,' it's sometimes called. (This may or may not work for the reader.) But if the writer really wants to get the reader to pay attention to the Grand Canyon, they'll figure out a way to make the human-scale plot pivot around the visit to the Canyon, and throw in their description of the Canyon (and maybe its history, the titanic process of weathering that gave rise to it, the appearance of the rock strata, the plants and creatures living in it) along the way.

"I'm basically writing fiction that incorporates a tour of the Grand Canyon as an unavoidable part of the plot. And generates a sense of wonder thereby (I hope)."