I recently cornered scifi writer Charles Stross because I had a lot of burning questions after reading his most recent novel Saturn's Children, about a sexbot who becomes a smuggler. But after a bit of cursory bonding over our love of internet porn, and a few excellent tales about his previous life working at a Scottish ISP where one of his jobs was preventing a cat from peeing on the modems that delivered the internet to all of Scotland, we wound up having a very interesting conversation that I was not expecting. It was about why science fiction created in the U.S. is so dystopian right now, while UK scifi is practically giddy about the future. I had asked Stross, somewhat off the cuff, why so many Scottish SF writers are kicking ass these days (I was thinking in particular of Ken MacLeod, Iain M. Banks, Grant Morrison, and Stross himself). And that's how we got onto the topic. He had a very precise answer, which involved both politics and the famous experimental scifi magazine Interzone. Initially, he said that Scotland has an especially cynical attitude:
It's the cynicism of a small nation that has been a junior partner in coalition of the not very willing. Scots are cynics and outsiders, but there's more hopefulness now.
After a long discourse on the Scottish government, and the peculiar rise of leftist nationalism there, Stross added:
Its attitude to the UK is like the attitude of Canada to US. I think it will form its own country in 4 or 5 years.
Even if lefty Scottish nationalism presages a possible separation from England, Stross nevertheless thinks that Scottish cynicism has been tempered of late by a general air of hopefulness in the U.K.:
A lot of people in the UK no longer remember the British Empire at all – there are just a few weird hangovers left like the Faulklands. And yet the [post-Empire] economic decline has reversed and the U.K. is at the end of a 10-year boom. Writers reflect when and where they write, and now the fallout from the Thatcher years is finally over. When the dust settled, you got the planet's sixth largest economy expanding again. The worst happened, the Empire had collapsed, and we were still around. And there's the background [U.K. writers] are writing against – a hopefulness caused by the political shifts away from conservatism and also the economic rebound after the 1980s.
For Stross and many of his contemporaries, these changes led to a new kind of science fiction writing because a group of editors founded the experimental scifi magazine Interzone in the early 1980s. So just as the U.K. sped towards social change, there was a magazine primed to publish and disseminate tales of a changed world – potentially, a more hopeful world. As U.K. scifi rediscovers hope in the ashes of a dead Empire, the U.S. is plunging headlong into a period of declining Empire. The powerful nation, financially weakened by foreign wars and internal economic crisis, is facing its own possible mortality – and Stross believes you can see this in the lack of U.S. science fiction that is set in the near future:
The paucity of near-future US scifi is about the country becoming pessimistic, not being able to see the future clearly. There's a trend in US scifi towards militarism and far-future stuff.
I mentioned that the Terminator franchise is a good example of this, and Stross told me what most of his fans already know: He watches no television, and very few movies. He said he was "a little freaked out" when he learned that the sexbots Saturn's Children were so similar to the cylons in Battlestar Galactica because he's never seen the show. Want to know what's next for Stross, who is an insanely prolific writer as well as the former rescuer of the Scottish internet from cat pee? He's finishing up his dimension-hopping Merchant Princes series. Then, he said:
I'm going to write 419, sequel to Halting State. After that comes The Fuller Memorandum, which is the third laundry novel [and sequel to The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue]. I only get a laundry book every 5 years, and that's a series I want to be writing. They're actually fun to write.
As he watched me diligently typing away while he answered my questions, Stross crossed his arms and added:
If you're going to write for a living, you should find something fun to write.
I'm trying, I'm trying.