An Interview With Karl Schroeder
by Derek Newman-Stille
Karl Schroeder is the author of several novels including “The Claus Effect”, “Ventus”, “Permanence”, and The Virga Series. In the following interview, much as in his fiction writing, Mr. Schroeder asks his readers the tough questions, calling on them to question their limited views of reality and helping readers realise that they have a role in making the world a better place. He calls on us to think about a possible future in which humanity develops better decision-making capacities. I hope that you find this interview as enlightening as I did.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
Karl Schroeder: I’m an author and futurist based in Toronto, though I was born and raised in the prairies. My family comes from the same southern Manitoba Mennonite community that A.E. van Vogt came from. In 2011 I acquired a Master’s degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation; as well as writing SF, I consult about technology and social futures for clients such as the provincial and federal governments, and the military.
Spec Can: Do you characters ever take you to places you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?
Karl Schroeder: No, and yes within limits. If you’re writing novels of character, then letting your heroes and villains take on lives of their own is good. If you’re writing any other kind of story, character, like setting, plot and style, is subordinate to what you’re trying to communicate. Characters should seem real to the reader, just as the settings and situations you write about should seem real; but there’s no advantage in them seeming real to you.
As with everything else to do with writing fiction, you must remember that it’s not a sign of success if you get swept away by your own storytelling; that’s actually a sign of poor discipline. If your characters are taking on lives of their own, you’re too close to them and need to step back to objectively assess whether they’re properly serving the story you’re trying to tell. If they are, then great. If they’re not, then you probably need to rein them in.
This probably sounds cold and heartless to beginning writers who feel that there’s something romantic about writing. The fact is, you want your readers to feel the romance of storytelling, but it’s utterly unnecessary—and often counterproductive—if you do.
Spec Can: What inspired you to write Speculative Fiction?
Karl Schroeder: No one thing; there was no Damascus Road moment that made me a writer. Above all, it was my family, and specific incidents when I was growing up.
My mother published a couple of novels when I was very young, so I grew up with these in the bookshelf. Becoming a writer was obviously a viable option. My brothers and sister also inspired me at different times with their creativity and the possibilities of storytelling.
To give just one example of the many small events that pushed me into being a writer: when I was about eleven my dad brought home a big roll of brown wrapping paper from work. My brother and I unrolled this on the basement floor and began covering it with doodles, art—and cartoons. From there I started filling notebooks with short graphic novels, and after a couple of years of that, began writing in prose. I started my first novel when I was fourteen, and I finished my first one when I was seventeen.
Spec Can: In what ways does your Canadian identity influence your writing?
Karl Schroeder: I’m sure there’s lots of ways that being a Canadian influences me, but somehow the question seems odd. Do we ask American authors how being American influences their writing? Or British authors how being English influences them?
One clear discovery I’ve made is that I was never influenced by certain key authors who loom large in the reminiscences of some American SF writers that I know. I never read Heinlein, for instance. –I tried. His attitudes and politics were too alien to me, even at age fifteen, for me to feel comfortable in his stories. On the other hand, I was avidly reading Stanislaw Lem at that time, so I never missed Heinlein.
Nowadays, my Canadian identity—like my Mennonite background—probably shines through most in my attitudes toward violence as a valid political tool. I.e., it isn’t one. I do write ripping pirate yarns, such as the Virga books, but those are cartoonish in their depictions of war. When I’m serious—as in books such as Lady of Mazes or the forthcoming Lockstep—I am careful to present nonviolent paths to resolving conflict as the superior option.
Spec Can: What do you see as distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction?
Karl Schroeder: The fact that it asks itself what makes it distinct.
Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in changing the way people think about the world around them?
Karl Schroeder: We spend much of our lives programming ourselves to react automatically rather than to think. It’s faster, costs less energy. Part of that process involves the ossification of our basic categories: man/woman, human/nonhuman. SF deliberately blurs these categories in order to almost literally wake us up. It’s strangemaking, which is a very valuable capacity, especially in the present situation when the world needs innovative new solutions to some pretty dire problems. It’s not that SF presents, or even can present, the solutions to big issues like global warming or global poverty; it’s that it helps educate us in the kind of thinking that can lead to them.
It’s important to know that the style of thinking SF promotes isn’t limited to science fiction. If you read current thinkers such as Timothy Morton, for instance, you’ll encounter the same strangemaking process, but highly honed for specific purposes and politically and socially pertinent.
Spec Can: Your work alternates between various Speculative genres. Is it tough to alternate between genres? Are these genre categories that separate?
Karl Schroeder: Genre is a marketing tool. I don’t think in terms of genre, only about what ideas I want to communicate (or strange-make). This determines the kind of story it’s going to be. I’d say the only reason that my novels have, to date, all been science fiction, is that I’ve had particular things to say that SF is optimized for.
I could simultaneously write a hard SF novel and a fantasy epic, without the stories interfering in any way with one another.
Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “realist” fiction can’t?
Karl Schroeder: Describe the real world.
Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator. It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances). That’s what the muggles do in the Harry Potter stories: it’s not actually that they lack some magical gene or other that wizards have (like the midichlorians in Star Wars); it’s that they literally can’t see the magical in the world around them. They only think about, and therefore can only see, those things they’ve decided are ‘real.’ What’s that saying? “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s muggle thinking. (And by the way, having the Force be created by midichlorians makes the Star Wars universe a very muggle place.)
In contrast, there’s some very interesting philosophy these days that goes way beyond realism to engage with both science and society in new ways. Bruno Latour is a good one to read for this: his Irreductions presents the idea that everything, from atoms to Santa Claus, is equally real: nothing can be reduced to anything else… and, anything can be reduced to anything else (if you’re willing to put in the work to connect them). As an artist, that’s much more like the world I live in than any realist world.
Spec Can: You collaborated with David Nickle in writing The Claus Effect. What is it like to collaborate with another author? What were some of the benefits and drawbacks?
Karl Schroeder: Collaboration is easy, with the right person. Also, attitude is everything. David and I wrote The Claus Effect for fun and we weren’t under contract. The deadline was tight, though: three days, because we were doing it for the Three-Day Novel Contest, which was held over labour day weekend. That explains some of the zany energy in the book, because parts of it were written at 3:00 a.m. on some very questionable formulas of caffeine and sugar.
Spec Can: In The Claus Effect, you tackle the issue of over-consumption around the holidays. What inspired you to write about the figure of Santa Claus and, in particular, the concept of greed surrounding the holidays?
Karl Schroeder: Oh, Lord, there was no cunning calculation to this! We were just both sick and tired of the overcommercialization of the holidays, and Santa is the perfect symbol. Anyway, anything precious gets distorted when filtered through David’s mix-master of an imagination; it didn’t take us long to come up with our present vision of Santa once we turned our attention to him. Maybe a minute.
Spec Can: What ideas of the mythic do you bring into your work? And what role can the mythic have for the modern Canadian audience?
Karl Schroeder: What we lack today is a mythic dimension of the real. There’s plenty of sense-of-wonder available from fantasy, but why should we have to escape reality in order to experience the mythic? Much of my work consists of examples of things that are perfectly possible, but as magical as anything you can find in fantasy. My world of Virga is an example: it’s a steampunk, gaslight environment complete with pirates and conspiracies, ancient monsters hiding in the forgotten corners of the world… and it’s a zero-gravity world where the hero rides around on a wingless jet engine with handlebars and a saddle on it. All perfectly possible.
Spec Can: What is the importance of imagination and a sense of wonder for our world?
Karl Schroeder: Everyone in the world today is caught between what they believe to be true, and what they know to be real. We’ve been taught that the real is not the realm of magic or of the imaginative. In fact, most of us are utterly incapable of reconciling what we believe to be true and what we know to be real. But if I said that for the most part, what I believe is true is also what know to be real; that for me, reality is the realm of the imaginative, and that magic and wonder dwell here with us and not in some separate realm… well, would you believe me?
Return again to Virga, and to the picture of Hayden Griffin arrowing through lemon-coloured skies on a wingless jet—or to Spire, a thousand-year-old, open-ended cylinder twelve miles wide rotating to provide gravity on its interior surface. Ancient, bits falling of it, holes in its surface known as airfalls, and strange isolated estates where ancient families enact eccentric rituals and shoot anyone who strays onto their decaying little patches of real estate… In the Virga books, the mythic dimension is explored by strictly obeying the rules of Newtonian physics. Spire is entirely at the mercy of Newton’s laws, which is what makes it so strange a place.
I wrote the Virga books to illustrate just how much novelty and wonder were still possible within science fiction with just what we knew a hundred years ago. The so-called ‘ordinary’ is an inexhaustible wellspring of wonder. To know that is to be comfortable living in this world.
Spec Can: What new technological advances most interest and excite (or frighten) you as an author of Speculative Fiction?
Karl Schroeder: There’s lots of technologies that are flashy, or might have this or that big effect on the world. Nuclear fusion, augmented reality, nanotech… yeah, they’re all great. But we don’t need them. There’s only one development that we need at this point in our history: better methods and systems for decision-making, both individual and collective.
We have all the technologies—all the tools and capabilities and understandings—to create a Utopia on Earth now. We can absolutely solve the problem of global warming, for instance; we even know how to reverse it with technologies we currently possess. What’s become abundantly clear in the past couple of decades is that the only thing we lack is the ability to make, and follow-through on, the right decisions. So much of my work right now is dedicated to asking what we need to do to get to such capabilities.
It’s ironic and sad that people within the science fiction community can imagine any future—ones where robots run amok, where nanotech eats the planet or biotech creates new species or aliens arrive… any future, except one in which humanity redesigns and improves its ability to govern itself. This is a ridiculous blind-spot, a very telling prejudice toward what we think is possible; it’s a remarkable and disappointing failure of our collective imagination. So that’s what I want to address in my new work.
Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to our interview, any ideas or thoughts to close our discussion?
Karl Schroeder: Let me deploy that old, inflammatory question: are you part of the solution, or part of the problem? Do you imagine or write a future where anything is possible except the invention of prostheses to compensate for the inadequacies of human decision-making? Does your worldbuilding encompass universes with star flight, robots and nanotech—yet accept royalty, corporations and bureaucracies as inevitable? Is Terminator your only model for computer-assisted decision making? Or are you tracking developments like dotmocracy, statistical demarchy, decision support software and the iPhone SuperPAC app? Because to those of us following such developments, the future looks entirely different than it does to mainstream SF—even, dare I say it, any SF of the present generation.
I’ll retract that statement when I’ve read a novel that shows how new governance systems and methods solve global warming.
I want to thank Karl Schroeder for being willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada and for asking readers tough questions, and questions that need to be asked.
As an educator who uses Speculative Fiction as a way of helping students to question taken-for-granted notions, I, personally, really appreciated Mr. Schroeder’s interest and incredible ability to evoke questions in the minds of readers and help us to expand our worldview.