Table of Contents
Ace Books by Charles Stross
THE ATROCITY ARCHIVES
THE JENNIFER MORGUE
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 2009 by Charles Stross.
Previous publication information can be found on page 353.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
eISBN : 978-1-101-08198-3
1. Short stories, American. I. Title.
For David Pringle, Gardner Dozois,
and Sheila Williams
Hello, and welcome to
This is not a novel. This is a short-story collection. This is not a short story. This is the introduction to a short-story collection. This is not fiction. This is a sequence of concepts that I am transferring into your conscious awareness via the medium of words, some of which may be false.
Danger: here be epistemological dragons . . .
I’m Charlie Stross, and I have a vice I indulge in from time to time: I write short fiction. I’ve been writing short stories (in various length factors) and getting them published in magazines for a long time—my first short story in the British SF magazine
came out in 1986—and although I don’t make much money at it, I still keep doing it, even though these days I write full-time for my living.
Short stories are a famously dead format in most genres of written fiction. Back in the 1950s, there was a plethora of fiction magazines on the shelves of every newsagent: but changes in the structure of the magazine-publishing business killed the fiction markets, and what had once been a major source of income for many writers turned into a desert. Even science fiction—which has a long tradition of short stories as a major subfield, going back to the 1920s and the pages of
Astounding Science Fiction
, and which has fared better than other genres in terms of the survival of the monthly magazines—isn’t a terribly fertile field to plow. Because of the way the publishing industry has evolved, if you want to earn a living, you really need to write novels: short-fiction outlets, with a very few exceptions, pay abysmally.
It wasn’t always thus. The science fiction novel was itself something of a novelty until the 1950s; the famous names of the early-SF literary canon—Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and less-well-remembered names such as Fredric Brown and Cyril Kornbluth and Alfred Bester—were primarily short-fiction writers. With dozens of monthly newsstand pulp-fiction magazines demanding to be fed, and a public not yet weaned to the glass teat of television, the field was huge. Video didn’t so much kill the radio star as it did for the short-fiction markets, providing an alternative distraction on demand for tired workers to chill out with.
But the SF short-story field survives to this day. It’s in much better shape, paradoxically, than other genres, where the form has all but died. It would be hard to describe it as thriving, at least compared to the golden age of pulps—but science fiction readers are traditionalists, and those of us who write short fiction aren’t primarily in it for the money: we’ve got other, less obvious, incentives.
(Actually, I’m not sure I know anyone who writes fiction at
length solely for money. If you’ve got the skill to string words into sentences, there are any number of ways to earn a living, most of which are far less precarious than the life of a freelance fiction writer. At the risk of overgeneralizing, it’s one of those occupations you go into because you can’t
do it, and any attempts to justify it by pointing to commercial success are, at best, special pleading. If Stephen King had failed to get his big break with
, if J. K. Rowl ing’s first Harry Potter book had sold out its first thousand-copy print run and thereafter gone out of print, I’m willing to bet that they’d have kept on writing regardless.)
Speaking for myself, I’m an obsessive fiction writer. I write because I’ve got a cloud of really neat ideas buzzing around my brain, and I need to let them out lest my head explode. But having ideas is only part of the reason I write—otherwise, I could just keep a private journal. The other monkey riding my back is the urge to communicate, to reach out and touch someone. (Or to lift the lid on their brainpan, sprinkle some cognitive dissonance inside, stir briskly, then tiptoe away with a deranged titter.) Everyone I know who does this job has got the same monkey on their shoulders, urging them on, inciting them to publish or be damned, communicate or die.
If you’re a compulsive communicator, nothing gets your attention like feedback from the public—a signal saying “message received.” To many writers, money is one kind of feedback; nothing says “message received” quite like the first royalty check after your book earns out the advance. It tells you that people actually went out and
. (And it pays the grocery bills.) Then there are the reviews, be they brilliant or misguided, or occasionally brilliant
misguided, which tell you a little bit about how the message was received or misunderstood. They don’t pay the grocery bills, but they still matter to us.
But the feedback from a novel is slow to arrive, and thin beer indeed after the amount of effort that went into fermenting the brew.
Imagine you’ve got an office job. You go to work every day, and there’s a perk: the office is about ten feet from your bedroom door. (No lengthy commute!) You sit in that office—alone, for the most part—and write, hopefully without interruption or human companionship. Sometimes you get bored and take a day or two off, or go do the housework, or go shopping. And sometimes you find yourself working there at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night because you took Friday off, and Thursday before it, and your demon conscience is whispering in your ear, reminding you to put in the hours. You’re almost always on your own.
You’ll find it generally takes somewhere between a month and a year to write a novel—sometimes more, sometimes less. And once it’s written, you deliver it to your agent or editor, and it disappears for a couple of months. Then it reappears as a job in the publisher’s production queue, moving in lockstep through a series of well-defined processes on its way to being turned into cartons of finished books. There’s a little wiggle room, but in general if you turn in a book, it will take a year to show up in hardcover (and then another year before it’s reprinted in paperback).
So: once a year, you get the fanfare and fireworks show of a new book coming into print. And then the reviews and reader comments trickle in, usually over a period of a couple of months. Then the long silence resumes, punctuated by the odd piece of fan mail (a surprising proportion of which is concerned with pointing out the same hugely significant typo on page seven—that escaped both you and your editors—as the previous sixteen e-mails) . . .
Short stories are different: they push the reward-feedback button much more frequently than novels. (And that’s why a lot of us start out writing short stories before we tackle novels.) There’s an addictive quality to writing short stories, like being a rat in a behavioral-science experiment that rewards correct performance of some complex task with a little electric shock to the medial forebrain bundle. Not only do they not take months or years to write (when things are going well, it’s more like hours or days), but you can send them out to a magazine or anthology editor with some hope of hearing back within a couple of months. Better still, if a magazine decides to buy your story, it can be in print in a couple of months. Push the button harder, rat! It’s great training for acquiring the motivation to engage with the bigger, slower job of writing a novel.
The speed of the short-story publication cycle brings me to the second reason I write them: I get to play with new ideas in a way I can’t manage at novel length. Novels are huge, cumbersome projects that take a long time to bolt together; in contrast, short stories are a quick vehicle for trying out something new, the fiction writer’s experimental workbench. I can focus on a particular idea or technique to the exclusion of everything else—which brings it into focus and lets me explore it to the full without worrying about whether it unbalances the plot development or fits with the protagonist’s motivations or whatever.
The lack of money also means there’s less at stake. If I’m working on a novel, I can’t afford to try out an untested new writing technique in it. At worst, I might end up having to throw six months’ writing in the trash when it proves unfixable: a mess in any situation, and potentially catastrophic if you’re self-employed and working to deadline. But I can take a day or two off to write a short story and see if it works: throw it at a magazine, put it out in public, and see if my readers throw rotten tomatoes or gold sovereigns. Or, for a bigger idea—a new stylistic experiment, for example—I can treat it as a pilot project for a novel: take a month, write a couple of novelettes or a novella, find a home for them in an anthology or a magazine.
I wrote the stories in this collection between 1998 and 2008. Some of them were purportedly written for money—at least, an editor approached me, and said, “Would you like to write me a story about Subject X? I’ll pay!”—but none of them was cost-effective; the money was just the excuse. They span the spectrum from the short-short “MAXOS” all the way up to “Palimpsest” and “Missile Gap,” novellas that bump up close to the complexity and depth associated with novels. Some of them were written in response to a specific challenge from an editor (“Unwirer,” for example, had to fit a theme anthology’s remit—tales in which the developmental history of science and technology had followed a different path) while some were written in response to challenges from within (“Snowball’s Chance” because an imp of the perverse taunted me to write a traditional Pact with the Devil story). Some were stylistic experiments (“Trunk and Disorderly” might, had things gone differently, become the opening of a novel; instead, I settled for the easier technique of
) while others were exercises in a familiar key (“Down on the Farm,” for example, is one of a piece with my other Laundry stories, collected in
The Atrocity Archives
The Jennifer Morgue