Sense of Wonder – Karl Schroeder

If you love science fiction writing that hinges on detailed and complex world-building, it’s high time you read some of Karl Schroeder‘s novels, if you haven’t already. A great place to start would be his latest book, Sun of Suns, which is the first part of the Virga trilogy and available right now from anywhere that carries decent books.

In addition to writing science fiction stories, Mr. Schroeder works as a foresight consultant, and has worked with a variety of organisations, ranging from the Canadian military to the environmental foresight website Worldchanging.

During a break between novels, he was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions about his writing, about foresight and the demise of futurism as a discipline, his objections to the technological singularity, and the long-term prospects of literature, sf-nal or otherwise. Here are the results.


AA: There are a few reviews of Sun of Suns floating around (with another one to follow here at VCTB in the next few days), but let’s hear its creator describe it: give us your ‘three minute pitch’.

Karl Schroeder:Sun of Suns is pure unabashed fun. Imagine sky above, sky below, infinite blue to all sides peppered with cloud, randomly floating spheres of water and chunks of soil – and you flying free of gravity. This is my world Virga, a rigorously extrapolated and completely possible artificial world that’s the perfect playground setting for a pirate adventure – a tale of revenge, betrayal, treasure maps, swordfights and boarding parties, yet set in a world where fish fly and where young, bitter Hayden Griffin zips around on a wingless jet engine mounted with a saddle and handlebars. Hayden’s bent on revenge for the deaths of his parents, but the man he’s targeted is a prominent admiral who hires Hayden as a flyer on a dangerous and possibly illegal trip into the darkened corners of Virga–the empty places collectively known as Winter.

There’s low humour and high drama, massive set-piece battles and intimate moments amongst the clouds. And Sun of Suns is only the first book in a series – there’s much more to come …”

It’s obvious (to this reader at least) that you really enjoyed creating the world of Virga; was it a slow accretion of ideas or did it spring to life fully formed?

“I rely on my unconscious mind to do the slow accreting, and then after a certain point a novel will leap into my head fully formed. Someone more in awe of their conscious mind than myself might attribute this appearance to a sudden burst of creativity but I know all the groundwork’s been laid by the various daemons that chug away in dark, inaccessible corners of my brain while I’m doing the dishes or chasing my daughter. So I could say that Virga appeared in my mind fully-formed in the space of about ten minutes – but that the ideas had been fermenting for well over ten years, occasionally surfacing and then sinking again before I could catch them. Does that make any sense?”

Were there any particular direct inspirations or source materials that played a part?

“One of my unpublished novels, written, oh … sixteen years ago or so, used the basic environment of Virga, in a slightly different form. It was a giant geodesic sphere made of glass, containing asteroids and so forth. So the basic notion had been kicking around my head for a very long time. I suppose it was pairing that initial, very high-tech idea with the steampunk conceit of gas-powered jet engines with saddles on them, that ultimately led to these books.”

Did you find yourself taking a lot of notes, working the world out on paper, or was it a strictly cranial process until you had it completed?

“None of my major novels has ever had more than a page of notes towards the worldbuilding side of things. All of that stuff is self-evident to me, I don’t have to write it down or think about it too much. I had a little sketchy map for Ventus, but that was about it. For Sun of Suns there’s some rough back-of-the-envelope calculations regarding the size of the world, its volume etc. Recently Vernor Vinge told me that he’d “run the numbers” on Virga and that it all checked out – a good thing, since I was sloppy enough with it that I still can’t tell you whether the world is three thousand or five thousand miles in diameter.”

Were you left with more detail and filigree than you had space for in the narrative?

“Oh, yeah – books and books worth. I could go on spinning yarns about this place for the rest of my life. Any time I focus on any part of Virga, I find stories in stories. It’s a rich territory.”

Did the world dictate the plot?

“Only in the sense that it prompted some questions that I felt needed to be answered – eg. how come this incredibly high-tech world has such a low-tech civilization in it. The real answer might be “because I wanted it to” but that’s not very satisfying, is it? In trying to justify my decisions, I ended up inventing the strange place I call “artificial nature” which surrounds Virga. And that threatens to steal the show as much as the Rights Economy did for some readers of my novel Permanence.”

Sun of Suns seems to have some things to say about nation-states, resource scarcity and the reactions of individuals to these pressures and interactions. Was this a deliberate attempt at commentary on the real world?

“This will become very clear by the third book in the series. I’ve set up a world with an almost medieval social structure, but while that sort of thing may be popular in space opera it’s not really justifiable. There’s an inherent tension to social systems that’s brought about by the presence of advancing technologies, and since that’s precisely what Lady of Mazes was about, I’m not about to ignore the theme in the Virga books. Expect an extended riff on social systems and alternative politics, buried between the sword-fights.”

What sort of response are you looking to produce in a reader – what switches are you looking to throw?

“Sense of wonder, of course, first and foremost. But while I’m fully capable of swatting the reader across the nose with a mind-blowing image or two, what I’m really into is making people dig down a few layers further into the way the world works than SF usually goes. That was the impulse behind Lady of Mazes, which doesn’t just question technological progress but asks what technology itself is. The answers I come up will hopefully startle people into thinking; for that Lady of Mazes question, the answer is “technology is legislation.” Once you parse that and let the notion infect you, your mind is going to start going in directions that no other piece of SF has ever taken you. And that is what I like to do.

On the other hand, in Sun of Suns I just wanted to blow stuff up. So I did.”

It shouldn’t be a shock in sf writing, but the characters in Sun of Suns and Lady of Mazes seem exceptionally engaged with their own futures, both socially and personally – many modern sf characters are very much ‘living in the moment’ by comparison. Are you drawing characters in an attempt to see how attitudes can affect actions and choices in the real world?

“My work is not about the future. It’s about the here and now. My blogging work with WorldChanging, for instance, is fully engaged with issues such as climate change and political power. SF is a filter through which to view those things. I’m primarily an entertainer, of course – I have no pretensions about being a prophet – but the best entertainments have a nasty and invisible tail of social conscience that coils around and stings you when you least expect it. They empower you to act in the real world even if you don’t recognize where that sense of empowerment is coming from.”

You’ve done a fair bit of ‘futurist’ work in your time; can you tell us a little about the sort of things you’ve been involved in?

“I’ve designed scenarios, helped organize and facilitated at a few foresight study workshops, for the Canadian government and army mostly, including giving a keynote address at a military science and technology conference a couple of years ago – and of course, I wrote Crisis in Zefra, which is a military technology extrapolation disguised as fiction set about twenty years in the future. Zefra has ironically garnered me more attention lately than my other work – ironic, because it’s written in a very spare and generic prose style, totally unlike the carefully wrought sentences and images of, say Lady of Mazes.”

What do you think of Bruce Sterling’s recent proclamation (in his final column for Wired) that futurism is dead and prognostication is becoming just another form of consultancy?

“Hardly a revelation – things have been this way for quite some time now. I don’t call myself a futurist, but I do consult on foresight. Futurism is a kind of guru-driven form of institutional prophecy. It’s very much about experts. Foresight, which has come to be centered around a technique called scenario-based brainstorming, has for quite a while now been a collaborative exercise, expert-free, that produces portfolios of alternative possibilities rather than predictions. It’s definitely becoming a mainstream organizational tool.

For instance, the collapse of the New Orleans levies during a major hurricane was one of the scenarios that was actually created about seven years ago during disaster-planning foresight exercises in the States. Pity nobody referred to those documents when the actual event occurred… This scenario-based technique goes gack decades, so Bruce’s comments may come as a surprise to some people, but not to anybody who actually works in foresight.”

You wrote a story for Worldchanging (‘Community’) about a small-town library of the future. As a library assistant and life-long bookworm, libraries are very dear to my heart. What is your relationship to them, and how do you see the public library surviving an increasingly wired future (if at all)?

“I just now came back from having lunch with the librarians at Toronto’s Merril Collection, our public collection of SF, Fantasy and Speculative literature. They answered some critical reference questions for me in the past couple of weeks pertaining to the next novel I’m planning. Also, my 3 1/2 year old daughter loves libraries, and I love taking her to them. The library is an extremely important institution for me and I hope it always will be with us in one form or another. That said, as an SF writer I am open to the evolution of all things, including institutions that I hold dear; that’s what that WorldChanging piece was about.”

I’ve seen you mention that some of your work is a rebuttal to the notion of the technological singularity. What aspect(s) of the scenario do you find to be false, and what would you put in its place?

“I could go on and on about this but I won’t. I have way too many objections but they’re often pretty complicated; for instance, my objection to the future of sentient machines a la Kurzweil is that natural selection seems more capable of originality than sentient thought – in fact, the engine of human creativity is probably a process of natural selection happening ‘under the hood’ of consciousness. So a future of ever-increasing intelligence or widening consciousness is just not on. The future lies in unconscious processes and in efficient reproducers, not efficient thinkers.

I also object to this ridiculous notion that change is accelerating. The period of greatest change in human history was one hundred years ago, when my great-grandparents went from a lifestyle that hadn’t changed significantly from the middle ages, to having electricity, radio, air travel, running water and access to modern medicine, all in about twenty years. Nothing comparable to that change is happening now nor is it likely despite all the hand-waving about the transformational power of genetic engineering or nanotech.

People in science fiction talk about the singularity as if it’s an inevitable truth. People who do foresight for a living – who study technology’s effect on society for a living – don’t see this exponential change occurring. Neither do I.

Hey – if Bruce is right and the age of futurist prophets is over, what does that say about the prophets of the singularity? – Like Kurzweil? Isn’t the singularity stuff just another case of futurist prophets dictating our future to us? (I don’t include Vernor Vinge as a prophet here because he’s a professional myth-maker like me, and I seriously doubt that he ‘believes’ in the singularity any more than I do. We’re in the business of crafting mythologies, not believing in them; he’s come up with a pretty damn good one and he’d be a fool not to run with it. And he knows it. But beware of thinking he’s a ‘true believer.’)”

You’re a Canadian writer, and from the outside looking in, Canada seems to have a pretty solid and lively sf/genre literature scene. Your relationship with Cory Doctorow is well documented; what other names should we be looking out for, from established stars to rising talents?

“There’s a lot of really good SF being produced up here. I could name-drop about a hundred different people but don’t take my word for it – buy a copy of Tesseracts 10, the latest anthology of Canadian SF from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. It’s edited this time by Robert Charles Wilson and Edo van Belkom. The Tesseracts books are where I got my first short story sales, they’re literally where my career was made. I have no doubt that the next stars of Canadian SF are to be found within these pages. Tesseracts 11 is being edited by Cory Doctorow and Holly Phillips and is open to submissions until the end of Calendar 2006, so the tradition continues.”

Where do you stand in the whole ‘how do we save sf from itself’ debate (if you care about it at all)?

“Science fiction no longer belongs to science fiction readers – or writers. It’s fully owned by the mainstream now, and they don’t need us anymore. Try taking a look at a website like, which has more than 100,000 members from all the countries on Earth that have an internet connection. These are graphic artists for the most part, and game designers. And if you look at the art they create and upload to the site, it’s almost all SF and Fantasy-oriented. It’s how their imaginations work – and how many of these people actually read SF?

It’s preposterous to bemoan the ‘death of science fiction’ when in fact SF has triumphed and taken over the cultural imagination in most countries on Earth. It’s not SF that’s on its way out – it’s just fandom and SF writing. Because they’re no longer where the action is. It’s games, movies, cgi, graphic novels, and all the sophisticated home-built stuff that kids are making for their own amusement – that’s where SF lives today.”

Asking you to wear futurist and author hats at once, what effect do you think the ongoing democratisation of publishing via the internet, print-on-demand technology, e-books and pod-casts and the Google Universal Library project having on the writing industry?

“Oh, it’ll destroy it. Twenty years from now I don’t expect to be able to make a living writing fiction. You know, this is related to Bruce’s comments about the end of futurism. The end of the SF writer as the primary producer of SF is around the corner. As I’ve said, SF has been appropriated by mainstream culture – it’s not ours any more. Ditto for publishing in general. There was only a brief period in history when one could make a living as a fiction writer, and it’s ending. – Except, of course, for stars like J.K. Rowling. They’ll get richer, the rest of us poorer. Since technology is legislation, there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.”

Last but not least, give us a teaser for the next two Virga books.

“Well, the third book starts this way: “One thing I can guarantee,” said the tug’s captain. “There has never been a prison break quite like this one.” –And it’s true, that I can promise you.

And the second book? Well, I decided to take everything that had been interesting about the first book, and … not do it again. Queen of Candesce is entirely unlike Sun of Suns. But it’s riotous good fun. You’ll get a chance to see what I mean in March, when the first instalment of the serialization comes out in Analog magazine.”

Thanks very much for your time.

“Thanks for the questions! It was fun.”

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …