A Conversation with Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross recall the nine year writing process that resulted in The Rapture of the Nerds.

Cory Doctorow: Charlie, do you remember what you had in mind when you wrote the opening passage to Jury Service? Were you explicitly thinking of Ken Macleod’s idea that the Singularity was like a rapturous, transcendant end-time for nerds?

Charlie Stross: Actually, no! I just had this stub of a story—only a couple of thousand words, if that—about this ordinary Joe, waking up in the bathtub after a raucous party, and finding a biohazard tattoo on his anatomy. It was one of a bunch of story-stubs I’d started and didn’t know what to do with. The “rapture of the nerds” idea was in my head at the time, but I was still working over the Accelerando stories when I wrote it. So it languished in development hell for a year or two, before we got talking about a collaboration. And I emailed it to you to see if you could do something with it. Which led to…

CD: I was in the same place. I was half-captivated by the notion of accelerating change taking us to someplace where we have a break with all the dreary miseries of the world, but still self-aware enough to imagine that this all sounded too good to be true, or at least too *convenient*. Why should a “rational” apocalypse deliberately brought about by sober-sided engineers lead to any sort of utopia?

CS: Yes, this. I was also busy writing a series of novelettes—or a novel—about a family of techno-utopian Panglossian optimists. It seemed like a really good idea to look at the flip side of the coin; at what the Singularity would mean to a curmudgeonly deep green who distrusts any technology more sophisticated than his bicycle (and for good reasons).

So we began emailing the story back and forth, adding around 1000 words each time, building on each others’ work (and, I think, trying to provoke each other by periodically adding preposterous elements—“here, write your way out of *this*!”). And at the end of the day we wound up with a novella, which Ellen Datlow bought for And there matters rested in 2003 or 2004 or thereabouts, until…

CD:“Appeals Court”—I can’t remember whether we wrote this on spec and then sold it to Lou Anders for Argosy, or whether he’d bought it in advance. This installment tapped into my obsession with uplifting other species, in particular what an uplifted colony organism might do (I go into this in my story “I, Row-Boat,” too). This was partly fuelled by my interest in Eric Bonabeau’s interest in Ant Colony Optimization (which also made an appearance in my story “Human Readable”)—and how that related to things like Wolfram’s notion of the universe being a series of iterated cellular automata.

CS: No, Lou approached us. He’d read Jury Service and thought that, with a sequel, it’d make a great chapbook to bundle with Argosy.

Which is why we ended up doing it that way. I vaguely recall talking something of a back seat on plot development to you during the process of writing “Appeals Court;” which we did in the same back-and-forth way as the earlier novella.

Argosy published it in issue #3 and then, well, let’s not talk about that. And there the matter rested for a couple more years—I thought we were done, frankly—until Tom Doherty (CEO of Tor) learned that we’d collaborated on two novellas and some short stories. “Buy the Doctorow/Stross novel!” he thundered at his editors from on high, some time in 2006. But it was not to be, for we both had piles of pre-existing work commitments. About once a year I’d email you asking, “you got time to cram in an extra half-book this year?” To which the response was generally “no, I’m busy,” at which point I had to admit, “me too.”

Until 2011. When Locus ran a joke April Fool’s Day news article headlined “Stross and Doctorow signed to write authorized sequel to ‘Atlas Shrugged.’”

CD: And we more or less committed to writing that sucker. A bunch of people took the joke seriously, and though the final installment isn’t technically a sequel to Rand’s book, Parole Board is the most sharply political of the lot.

I found it really interesting to revisit the original material, spanning so many years—when I started working on Jury Service, I hadn’t even started working at EFF! Taken as a single work, RotN (a fine acronym!) is the longest project I’ve ever participated in.

CS: Me too. I think we wrote it over a period of about 9 years, didn’t we? I know that my ideas and attitudes changes considerably during that period—an inevitable correlate of growing older—and I think yours changed somewhat as well.

We came at the novel from the angle of completing an existing project by turning it into a three act narrative, and examining some of the implications of the whole singularity idea. Not to mention the power imbalances and questions of privilege and viewpoint and actual existence it raises, and tracing it back to its origins in Russian Orthodox mysticism and the writings of Sergei Federov. Insofar as the singularity is an emergent construct of Christian eschatology (as is the revisionist ”rapture” anticipated by the fundamentalists) the roots of the ostensibly rationalist, materialist, scientific world-view of transhumanism is rooted in some remarkably odd soil; digging into it was great fun.


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