Welcome back to our ongoing Inspirational Creator series. We kicked the series off with Jeff Grubb, longtime fantasy writer for D&D among others, which you can read here. We continued with Stephen Gibson, artist and game designer, and creator of the weird western tabletop game, Grimslingers which you can read here.
This week, we’re chatting about the future (and Mennonites) with Canadian science fiction writer and futurist, Karl Schroeder. You’re going to like how his mind works, this is a fellow who can dream big.
1. My dad described once how he used to jump a fence in his Brooklyn neighborhood and stare at the sky from the roof of his school, dreaming of places he’d go. That sends my mind reeling. Paint us a picture of you as a boy – what got you thinking about the future?
I grew up in a small town on the Canadian prairies in the 1960s—200 miles north of Minot, North Dakota. In one of my book bios, I wrote “Karl used to walk outside and stare up at the sky, wondering what he might be able to see if those pesky Northern Lights weren’t in the way.” But seriously, my dad, who’d wired his Mennonite village for electricity when he was a teenager back in the 1940s , had made a career in electronics, and Brandon is a university town. Dad and I watched the moon landings together, and Mom, who was a science fiction reader as well as a published author herself, introduced me to the YA adventures of Andre Norton. Norton’s books are perfect YA gold, and they got me hooked on SF.
I started work on my first novel when I was sixteen, and finished it when I was seventeen. I didn’t publish that—or the next eight I wrote—but I kept on going. It only took me twenty years to become an overnight success.
2. So moving to Toronto around the birth of the internet seems to have helped you hit your stride. What impacted you the most about that writer’s circle you helped form and lead, The Cecil Street Irregulars?
Our approach at Cecil Street was pretty no-nonsense—an attitude we inherited from Judy Merril, who inspired the creation of the group. The Irregulars have always been highly regular, meeting once per week for several decades. You were expected to produce. You were expected to read submitted manuscripts, and give a thorough and useful critique. So with a membership that fluctuated between six and ten, we managed to have at least one story to workshop every week. Often we had three or four. The work was constant, and that’s what made it effective.
We were also peers. Judy helped start the workshop, but she didn’t stick around to be a guru. She said you can’t become a good writer by studying under an established one—you just become a mediocre copy of that person. Artists need to develop their own unique identity, and you can only do that by studying with people, rather than under them.
3. Hemingway used to say of writing, “Just write one true sentence.” Harlan Ellison said, “Write about people; that’s all there is to write about.” Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.” What’s the Schroeder one-liner on how to write impactfully?
I’d say, “Be prepared to reinvent your process every time.” Every story is different, and I’ve found it much more useful to approach each project with a quiver full of techniques, tricks, and methods, rather than the preconception that I know what I’m doing. Beware of ever saying, “I know how to do this!” You know how to write your last successful story; you don’t know how to write the next one. The process of exploration might take you to first-person narrative, present-tense, a 7-point plot outline, free verse, cut-ups, collaboration, pantsing or a detailed outline. I try things, back up, throw out entire drafts; I wrote something like seven versions of the first 100 pages of Lady of Mazes before I was happy with it and kept going. I don’t have a philosophy or follow any particular theory—I have a toolkit of philosophies and theories and try things until one works. Because no single theory or approach is ever going to exhaust all the possibilities of storytelling.
4. You have to strike an interesting balance between thinking meaningfully about realistic futures and making entertainment that will sell. Tough line to walk. What’s your creative process?
My original touchstone for writing science fiction (which is primarily what I do) was that the wonderful and possible is always cooler than the merely wonderful. So, I’ve always tried to achieve the same effects as fantasy but using hardnosed science. You can see that most clearly in my novel Ventus, which reads like a high fantasy adventure for the first couple of hundred pages, then slowly mutates into hard science fiction as you learn that the “magic” had a physical basis all along. Reality’s a better source to mine for the fantastical than the imaginary, believe it or not. So, in the Virga series, I was able to create a fantasy-like world of steampunk nautical pirate adventures, complete with broadsides, sword fights, betrayal and treasure hunts—but because the stories are set in a world without gravity, they’re completely fresh. There’s nothing like Virga out there, and it’s because I used the (potentially) real to reinvent something normally considered fantasy.
And then I got a design degree in 2011. It’s in Strategic Foresight, so I’m a card-carrying futurist, but design thinking was an important part of the program. I’ve applied design principles to my writing ever since. This has opened up new possibilities because now I know how to play with constraint as a creative tool. For example, for my novel Lockstep I set myself a design constraint: have a Star Trek or Star Wars-like space opera milieu where the characters can fly to another star system, have adventures for a month, and fly back to find that only a month has passed back home, without using faster than light travel, wormholes, or any other hand-waving magical technology. Of course such a requirement looks impossible, but that’s where design comes in. I managed to solve the impossible problem not by trying to address it head-on—if you do that with an impossible problem such as how to go faster than light, you end up with an impossible solution, like an FTL drive that violates physical laws—I did it by reframing the problem into one with a possible solution. In this case, if you look at the constraint, it’s really not about how to go faster than light, but rather how to have a society like the ones in faster-than-light space operas. And that’s a completely different kind of problem. The solution to it is the lockstep, a system of synchronized hibernation beds that keeps everybody on the same schedule. The whole civilization sleeps for 30 years, wakes for a month, then sleeps for 30 years. Weird, but it turns out that the experience of someone living in the lockstep is the same as if they lived in a Star Wars universe with FTL. So, problem solved—by design rather than science-y handwaving.
As to “creative process,” as I said in the last response, I have no process. I have a suite of processes, because each project will have its own best approach.
5. What are some ideas or concepts or people that are particularly inspiring to you right now, and why is that?
Answering this one’s fraught with danger, because I’m likely to sound ridiculous. I get most of my ideas from philosophy, mostly ontology, which I project back into technology, setting etc. So if I said I’m really really excited by the idea of acausal constraint, would that make sense? Basically, I don’t start with technology—I don’t play the “what if you had a raygun that dissolved people’s underwear?” kind of speculation; and I don’t start with science as such, usually. I rarely do the kind of “what if a buried tectonic plate suddenly scraped its way to the surface and formed a new continent in the Pacific Ocean?” science thing. I’m interested in the implications of scientific discoveries, so right now for instance I’m puzzling through the meaning of the Bell Inequality, which demands that at least one of the following be true: superluminal communication (and maybe that’s what entanglement is), superdeterminism (which would mean that nothing could possibly be other than it is), or the third option: that realism is false. This last seems likely—so we apparently live in a world where there are real things, but no Reality that’s the sum of all those things. And I’m trying to figure out how to write about that. I think I can do it, but again, not by approaching the idea directly. (And of course the real challenge is to make it exciting, and a story about real people and real consequences. Another design constraint.)
6. There’s been a bit of turmoil in 2020 as relating to politics, violence, the pandemic, and economic disruptions. Are we going to make it? Why or why not?
Depends on the “we” you’re talking about. I’m Canadian, and Canada is doing pretty well at the moment. Globally, more than a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in the past twenty years, so the experience of most of the human species has been quite positive for the last generation or so.
That said, the planet is facing unprecedented crises. The one that matters most is climate change, but even it is a solvable problem if you think in design terms. The problem is not in fact how to “solve” climate change; we know how, we know all the solutions. The issue is how to get them implemented. And that’s a governance issue. So governance, particularly on the global level, is what we need to focus on. So there, the design problem becomes, “how do we turn governance into a solvable problem?” Answering this question provides a great opportunity for new science fiction—and real-world activism.
In other words, if you frame climate change as a problem, you will look for particular kinds of “solutions”—which don’t exist or can’t be implemented because of how you’ve framed the issue. But, for instance, climate change has given us the greatest business opportunity of the 21st century: renewable energy and the smart grid. If you want to become a billionaire and save the world right now, you can do it by going all-in on solar, wind, and storage. That’s not a problem, that’s an opening for new wealth creation; and that wealth creation enables a kind of governance because it creates new power blocs and new interests.
My latest novel, Stealing Worlds, is all about this process of reframing, and the power of it. We’re in a dire situation, but it is also humanity’s moment of greatest opportunity.
7. What are you working on these days and what’s the best way for people to connect with you?
You can find Stealing Worlds, Lockstep, The Million and other recent books on Amazon or in your local bookstore; if you want to read a free excerpt from Stealing Worlds, visit https://www.torforgeblog.com/2019/04/20/excerpt-stealing-worlds-by-karl-schroeder/.
I’m doing some foresight work that I can’t talk about, but it’s fun, and I’ve got several short stories coming out this fall. Meanwhile I’m reimagining what a Solar System-level civilization would look like; planning new adventures in my Lockstep/Million universe; outlining an entirely new kind of time travel story as well as a new take on secret societies; and I’m daydreaming about solar airships under the midnight sun. I’m having fun, and coming up with new ideas far faster than I can write them down.
Karl, you’ve been amazing and fascinating! It means a lot to us to hear about your early days, your process, and what it’s like to make a living dreaming. Very cool.
Best of luck with the upcoming work! We’d be honored to bring you back again sometime. You’re the very picture of our tagline here at Grailrunner.
Dreams are engines. Be fuel.