SFRevu Interview: Karl Schroeder Conducted by Ernest Lilley at ReaderCon, June 02.
I've been following Karl Schroeder since Ventus came out in 2000 and when I saw him this summer I stopped to talk about growing up Canadian, writing, and the New Optimism in SF. Rather than wait for Permanence to come out in paperback this spring, I wanted to give folks a chance to get to know this very likely Hugo candidate before the end of the year. (Go to interview)
Interview: Karl Schroeder
Ern: I really enjoyed Permanence. I especially liked the opening scene with the escape from the asteroid colony...which seemed very Golden Age SF.
Karl: It was a deliberate pastiche of the opening of every Andre Norton novel I ever read as a kid.
My Mother had six feet of Andre Norton novels, and I read them all. So part of what I wanted to do with Permanence was a homage to the stuff I grew up reading. My mother was a writer herself...she wrote Christian Nurse Romances...sufficiently different from what I do, but I grew up seeing books on the shelf with my surname on them, so I assumed anybody could be an author.
Ern: So you grew up in a reading household.
Karl: Yes, though my dad didn't read, never did. He was a hand's on kind of guy. Very mechanically inclined.
Ern: Sounds like you've got some synthesis going on there.
Karl: Yeah...and both my parents were rebels against the Mennonite background they grew up in. (note: Karl isn't the only SF writer to come out of the Mennonite community, as he points out on his website, first there was A.E. Van Vogt.)
Ern: Where did you grow up?
Karl: I grew up in Brandon, Manitoba, which is just north of North Dakota There are about 45,000 people there and the fun thing to do was to drive down to Minot, North Dakota. (There's an Air Force Base in Minot)
Ern: Canada sounds like it's on another planet.
Karl: I credit sensory deprivation with the imagination I have now.
Ern: So, When did you start writing?
Karl: I stared drawing comic book style cartoons when I was about twelve, and started writing when I was about fourteen. I had my first short story published in my Junior Year, in The University Press at Brandon. The story was called...(Karl searches his memory) the Great Worm...it was about the Northern Lights.
Ern: Then you finished your degree...
Karl: No, actually I never finished High School, never got a degree.
Ern: Wow. That's great.
Karl: It's an interesting tidbit of of information.
Ern: I mean, you're obviously well educated, (literate, and a fine writer, and a nice person)...and you didn't go to school to achieve that.
Karl: I think it's important for people to know that education is something you do, not something you get.
Ern: There are a lot of people who didn't get degrees that are pretty turned off by the academic process.
Karl: It's important for me that people not think I'm misrepresenting myself as someone who has degrees..
Ern: One of the things that I think draws people to fandom is that you can be an academic without portfolio...or at least dabble in ideas.
Karl: Yes. My readers are highly articulate people, in fact there are plenty that are smarter than I am, and they have to be treated with respect. It's a given, considering what I'm writing.
Ern: What have you been doing for a day job?
Karl: I've been primarily doing technical writing for companies in the computer industry. I work for people like IBM....and I've designed software communications protocols for document communications systems. It's an area where I've basically carved out my own niche.
Ern: How did you acquire the technical wherewithal to do that?
Karl: I'm not sure I really know. I accumulated it over the years. When I was working at the physics department, I was basically a group secretary, but I ended up getting involved in it. This is the history of my career. I wind up being involved in things and find I'm able to do them.
Ern: I've been there...but I did get a degree in order to make it easier for people to justify hiring me.
Karl: Right. For instance, IBM wanted to hire me full time, but they can't...because I have to at least have a masters. It does make it more difficult, but my intent was always to be a writer, so I sacrificed things like that, perhaps unwisely, because of my expectation that I would be writing full time.
That seemed to be a goal that had evaporated until very recently. Now it appears to be possible.
Ern: So, are you now writing full time?
Karl: I have periods during the year where I can. About six months at a time. I hope to grow that time until I do it full time.
Ern: About your stories. Are Ventus and Permanence in the same story universe?
Karl: No, the reason that they are in completely different universes is that they have different purposes they have different messages. The universes are built around the fanatics...
Ern: So, the primary features are the products of the people with the biggest agendas, and your characters react to those agendas.
Karl: Right. For instance, Ventus is concerned with issues of ecology and nature. Permanence is concerned more with time. The universe of Ventus is a better universe for talking about ecology, and Permanence is better for time.
Ern: Have you done much short story work?
Karl: Yes, and that's an interesting question. I've published a few short stories...almost entirely in Canada, over the last ten...twelve years. And every one of those stories has been notable for one reason or another. Primarily in the Tessaract series of anthologies. One of them, which I wrote with David Nichol, won an Aurora Award, the Canadian equivalent of a Hugo. Originally it had been called the Caspers...and nobody liked that name.
So I never went the standard route of selling short stories to Asimov's and Analog and approaching publishers with that reputation in hand. I was lucky in that David Hartwell has been coming up and poaching for quite a while.
Ern: So how did you get your first book? Did Hartwell discover you and take you to lunch?
Karl: Well, yes, but I put myself in his way, so he pretty much had to. I got to know him during his various visits to Canada and he was aware of my anthology work. So at some point I told him I had the first section of an epic and he was very favorable. He never gave me advice about what direction to take and encouraged me to expand it as much as I wanted. So I was very comfortable in taking on the epic proportions it did.
Ern: The characters in Ventus have a lot of back story...the woman...
Karl: Calandria May. She has her own novel, but it's an unpublished work. It will probably never be published...but it was written about ten year ago. Back-story is a natural part of the story, and as things go on, these things present themselves...or not.
Ern: I liked the mix of the three characters. It was sort of the traditional triad...mixed up a bit.
Karl: I'm working on another epic science fiction novel. It deals with virtual reality, trans-humanism...and my own rebuttal of the technological singularity.
Ern: As opposed to Ian Banks' rebuttal.
Karl: What's his rebuttal?
Ern: Well, his Culture novel stories are clearly on the other side of the singularity, but the technologies have turned out to have their own agendas. Sometimes they are exclusive, and sometimes they are co-optive...but it's not a monolithic agenda.
Karl: Yes. Exactly...and I'm writing this book with Banks, and Greg Egan in mind.
Ern: That sounds great. Do you have a title for it? When will it be done?
Karl: I have a working title, but I'm not going to jinx it by giving it away. I would hope to be done with the book this year, but it will be a while before you see it.
Ern: If I can ask about the ideas behind the book, what is the singularity to you?
Karl: It's a myth. Specifically what it is is part of the mythology of transcendence, that there are no limits to growth, that evolution has a direction...all of which are very suspect ideas. The idea that there is meaning, or that intelligence and knowledge equates to meaning, which is a very suspect.
Ern: Your parents were from a religious background?
Karl: Yes, they were strongly religious Mennonite background.
Ern: Did they break with that, or find their way within it?
Karl: They found their own way within it, which was a great way to grow up, because in there own ways they were intellectuals. My father is a technically minded engineering personality. He views the physical world as a set of problems to solve. Whereas Mother is much more interested in philosophy and religious issues.
Ern: Did you learn more at home or in school?
Karl: That's an interesting question. I think I learned a lot more at home. But Brandon is a university town, and when I should have been going to high school I was hanging out with a bunch of like minded intellectual rebels...who have gone on to an amazing range of careers. Including , Politics, opera, cable TV administration...one fellow is the vice president of our equivalent of MTV.
We were utterly isolated from the east and west coast machinery of the arts, but none of us had any exposure to failure as an option.
Ern: Are any of your short stories coming out in any anthologies?
Karl: Yes. In fact David Hartwell has one in a collection he's coming out with, The Hard SF Renaissance (We'll be reviewing THSFR next month, but don't wait...go buy a copy now...it's worth it - Ern). In fact it's the first Halo story, set in the same universe as Permanence. The ideas central to the novel are first presented there.
Ern: Where do you think SF is headed? I like to break it up into 50 year blocks, inaccurate as that may be, and feel we're heading out on the next epoch...a synthesis of the first two.
Karl: That's an interesting way to look at it.. I think what we're on the edge of a new phase, what you might call late SF, in the sense that you might refer to late capitalism. The field has run though all the permutations of all its core ideas, and I find this a delightful period to be writing in because what that means is that all the motivating philosophies are clear to see in a way that they weren't when they were originally being presented in hundreds and hundreds of stories over the years.
Ern: So all the tropes are there to play with.
Karl: And you can choose to head off in new directions, to use them to create new messages.
Ern: And what message would you like to create? What future would you usher in...if you could?
Karl: At the moment, what interests me is looking past modernism and post modernism. And what that means is to end the two culture war between science and humanity. That in turn involves a rapprochement between religion and science, which I think is not only possible but happening right now in disciplines that are not often examined by people in SF. Cognitive science is the most important area right now where that sort of thing is coming to a head.
What's interesting is a future where culture and counterculture are no longer opposites...and the possibility of a monolithic culture arising again. So those are things that I like to play with, and not whether we are going to be ruled by soulless corporations that put chips in our heads (for exactly the opposite point of view, read fellow Canadian Jim Munroe's interview this issue)...I don't think that's really what we want to talk about.