ActuSF : First, how did you meet science fiction and what made you want to write some?
Karl Schroeder : My mother had a big collection of Andre Norton novels when I was growing up. They were kept at just the right height for me to grab them when I was a toddler, so I suppose I was attracted first to those intriguing covers. I started reading with the atrocious “Doc Savage” series and graduated to the Norton, which were really quite good. Most importantly, though, my mother (Anna Schroeder) had published a couple of novels around the time I was born; so I grew up seeing books with Schroeder on the spine in our bookshelf. It seemed natural and logical to write books; so when I was fourteen years old, I started writing my first one.
ActuSF : In France, we can read your two novels: Permanence and Ventus. Let us begin with Ventus, how did you find the idea for this book?
Karl Schroeder : A short story may contain one or two ideas; a novel is representative of your entire experience at that time of your life. It’s quite impossible to explain how these novels came together, except to say that they represent me at the times they were written. –And, to say that they were the books I wanted to read at those times of my life, but could not find anyone else writing.
ActuSF : Tell us of these machines Choronzon and 3340. How do you see them?
Karl Schroeder : Well, first of all neither Choronzon nor 3340 are machines; neither are they either information processors nor are they biological in nature. A major point of these two novels is to explore a fourth category of agency. By the way, both Choronzon and 3340 are given a much more detailed treatment in my later novel Lady of Mazes; in that novel I explore the nature of intentional actors that are not traditional computing machines and not biological entities either. Both are emergent systems, to be precise—a far more important category than those used in SF for the past century or so. Having explored these ideas, I no longer believe in ‘artificial intelligence’ for instance, for all that books like Ventus and Permanence seem crammed with them.
ActuSF : How did you work on it? Did you build your world first or was it the history that has imposed itself first to you?
Karl Schroeder : My purpose in writing comes first; story derives from that; and things like world and history are entirely contingent on their needs. I don’t believe I have more than a page or two of notes about the worlds, settings, and histories for either Ventus or Permanence. Everything lives on the written page, or I have no need for it. I know that many writers, especially beginning writers, craft hundreds of pages of notes and histories about their worlds. These are a distraction at best; procrastination in the typical case; and an outright replacement for writing fiction in the worst case. I don’t indulge such habits.
ActuSF : For Permanence, how is born the idea of the novel?
Karl Schroeder : I wanted to completely reinvent the idea of interstellar civilization, and invent a viable approach to interstellar colonization and commerce. So, I did. I’m not sure that the interstellar cyclers I created would actually work; on the other hand, everything I predicted about the nature of brown dwarf stars has turned out to be accurate. They really are attractive destinations. We can see a bit of a hint of that in our own solar system, where Jupiter and Saturn appear to have several moons that could support life. Latest reports suggest that the subsurface ocean of Europa may be fully oxygenated, for instance—capable of supporting earthly fish and other fauna right now.
ActuSF : How do you see Rue Cassels?
Karl Schroeder : Rue is someone whose childhood has traumatized her almost past the point of recovery, but who is handed an unbelievable opportunity to take back her life. For me, Permanence is a novel about doing that: taking an opportunity and using it to recreate yourself. That’s just what she does in the book.
Rue discovers a meteor that proves to be an extraterrestrial spacecraft.
ActuSF : How do you see these ET? And why did you have not left them "living"? We hardly see some trace left of their being.
Karl Schroeder : The whole point of Permanence is that toolmaking civilizations cannot be permanent. In Permanence, intelligent species are constantly evolving, but each one comes up against an impassable barrier imposed by evolution itself: technology is superior for a species moving into a new ecological niche, but direct adaptation to the environment is always better for a species that stays in that niche. Intelligent species burst into the galaxy, using technology to explore and colonize many different worlds; but eventually, they are always replaced on every world by species that don’t need tools to survive there. Always—it’s a law as final as extinction itself. This law, which decrees the eventual doom of every civilization, hangs over the novel like a curse.
ActuSF : Humanity in this novel seems limited technologically. Why? And how did it won the stars?
Karl Schroeder : In Permanence, humanity has moved beyond our brief historical period of invention, and is using technologies that are already well established. People choose technologies based on their immediate needs, not because the market or competition is driving them to innovate. Economics and environmental factors dictate the technological mix we see on the halo worlds, for instance, not competitive innovation. We sometimes forget that this is how humanity has lived with technology for 100,000 years now. Bursts of innovation are extremely brief.
As to how humanity gained the stars, that’s a whole novel in itself. The idea of interstellar cyclers makes it plain, though: it was a series of small steps, each one taking colonists deeper and deeper into interstellar space. Cyclers enabled them to economically create a kind of ‘railroad’ to the stars through intermediate objects such as brown dwarfs and orphan planets (of which there must be thousands even in our own stellar vicinity). This makes the process of interstellar colonization robust, because it doesn’t rely on a single throw but grows organically.
ActuSF : Your novels are quite rich. You talk both about nanotechnology, terraforming, augmented reality or interstellar travel. Was it difficult to put all these elements in place in a plot? And what interested you in all of them?
Karl Schroeder : I’ve always found that I couldn’t write without including all these elements. The problem is that no future is credible if you ignore all the factors that we know are coming into play now. If you’re going to set anything in the future, you have to take nanotech, biotech, infotech, and cognitive science into account, or it’s completely unbelievable. So I’ve always been driven by necessity to do this.
ActuSF : These concepts are often very scientific. Do you follow much Scientific news? What are the areas that interest you in particular now?
Karl Schroeder : I don’t believe it’s possible to be literate today unless you are scientifically literate. I keep up with everything I possibly can and in as much detail as I can; but then, I’ve always done that, simply because it’s so much fun to do. The natural world is endlessly fascinating and I’d like to know everything about all of it. Right now, my primary interest is cognitive science, since this is an area of study likely to be more revolutionary than everything we’ve seen to date. After all, cogsci promises to answer those fundamental questions that we have to date relied upon religion to answer. Along with physics, it will revolutionize our understanding of ourselves, and if you thought the discovery of evolution was contentious in religious communities, wait for the cogsci equivalent! Wars will be fought over this stuff.
ActuSF : Do you have any influences or authors references on all these subjects, both for the space opera aspect and for Hard science one?
Karl Schroeder : Two accessible books (in English) are “Cognition in the Wild” by Edwin Hutchins, and “Being There” by Andy Clark. Also “Where Mathematics Comes From” by Lakoff.
ActuSF : Are you claiming to be part of the NSO? Does this term “New Space Opera” has a special meaning for you?
Karl Schroeder : I’m playing at being part of the NSO. I’m one of the inventors, as it were, but the space opera is hardly representative of my work. Lady of Mazes, for instance, is something completely different: a thorough exploration of the thesis that “technology is legislation” in a world where you can literally tune in or tune our anything in your senses, and can also dictate what technologies will work around you. “Lady” is an exploration of how technology enables multiculturalism, and how it undermines it to create a monoculture. Very much an SF novel from a Canadian perspective, by the way.
ActuSF : Your last two novels are Queen of Candesce and Sun of Suns. They are not yet translated into french. What are they talking about?
Karl Schroeder : Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce are the first two books in my Virga series. They are steampunk pirate adventures set in a world without gravity. It’s outer space, with air. –All completely possible, I might add; you’ll have to read the books or visit my website (www.kschroeder.com) to find out how. But they are, quite simply, fabulous fun and entirely within the space opera tradition—though a kind of Newtonian space opera; space ships with vacuum tubes and no computers.
ActuSF : What are your plans? What are you working on?
Karl Schroeder : More than I can talk about. I’m in the middle of the fourth Virga book and a number of short stories set in that world; I’m also embarking on a general project I call Reason’s Compass, which is about cognitive science. I’ve started publishing short stories again recently, and have tantalizing hints of a film adaptation of one of my novels. I am also working hard to get more translations! I was delighted to have the French editions of Ventus and Permanence, and hope to see the rest of my books in print there, if only because I’ve grown and changed so much as a writer since the first two, and would like the French audience to know where I’m at now.
ActuSF : Thanks again. It has been a lot of questions
Karl Schroeder : Thank you for asking! I’m always happy to answer.