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Interview: Karl Schroeder

By Paula Guran
Written: 07.02.05
Published: CFQ Volume 37, Issue 6 & 7 (Sept 2005)

I love to combine the 'ooh that's cool' reaction with a kind of paradigm-shift 'aha!' moment of new insight. Just putting one of them into the text isn't enough. -- Karl Schroder

Most readers had never heard of Canadian author Karl Schroeder until his first solo novel, Ventus, was published in 2000 to high critical acclaim. This obscurity is understandable. "Most of my early short-story publications -- which made my initial reputation -- were in anthologies and Canadian publications," he explains. "I'd never sold anything to any of the American 'major' genre periodicals before I sold Ventus. My first published novel was The Claus Effect, written with David Nickle, which was published by Tesseract Books in Canada. So people who were paying attention knew about my stuff, and I had a reputation within the field, so to speak, but the average American and British reader had never heard of me."

"Karl Schroeder" is still not a household name, but subsequent publications -- novel Permanence (2002), co-authorship with Cory Doctorow of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, collection The Engine of Recall (January 2005), and recently, his new novel Lady of Mazes (see review) -- have brought further notice.

Karl Schroeder Schroeder hails from Brandon, Manitoba and grew up in the Mennonite community there. As unusual as these origins may seem for a science fiction writer, Schroeder learned only a few years ago that that the great "golden age" SF writer A.E. van Vogt grew up in southern Manitoba in the same town as his mother. "His family were Mennonites, too, and my mother remembers the Vogts (he added the "van" later in life)," says Schroeder, "So I'm actually the second SF writer to come out of the area."

His theory is that "there's so little sensory stimulation in that part of the country -- if you've ever seen the movie Fargo you've seen the landscapes of my childhood -- that people are forced to develop huge imaginations to compensate."

Even though his first novel was a comic fantasy and his current writing reads more like fantasy than science fiction, the term "hard SF" is often attached to Schroeder's fiction. "I admit I'm puzzled to be labeled a hard SF writer. I guess it's because I do take science seriously -- not on the level of having the latest gadgetry in my books, but in the sense that I think about the implications of our technologies. I write about what it means to live in an age of out-of-control science, where change is accelerating and we don't know where this wave we're riding will take us."

"But I might choose to use SF or fantasy or even historical stories to explore this stuff. So-called 'hard' SF that restricts itself to talking only about the 'hard' sciences is too limiting. It's a bit too old-fashioned -- a bit too 20th century -- to be relevant today."

Schroeder also shuns labels that might lead the reader to think his work too "difficult" to enjoy. "I write adventure stories. For instance, Ventus has shipwrecks, swordfights, and a mad queen besieged in a castle by a general who's in love with her. Yeah, there's also nanotechnology and post-human weirdness, but you can pick the level you want to pay attention to. There are layers to these books -- and I make sure that at the level of character and story they're totally accessible. If you want to explore deeper and discover some of the other layers, that's optional."

"My new novel, Lady of Mazes, is about culture, and the question I raise is whether you can have a 'cultural technology' -- whether our technologies are doomed to flatten all our differences until we all live in one monoculture or whether you can imagine a future in which diversity thrives. That's a very Canadian outlook. It probably reflects the fact that I live in Toronto, a city the U.N. calls the most culturally diverse in the world."

Lady of Mazes is set in the distant future, but the science is not as farfetched as one might expect. "The next big thing in computer interfaces is something called 'augmented reality'," Schroeder explains. "If virtual reality is the holodeck [as in Star Trek: The Next Generation], augmented reality is the whole world as holodeck -- the virtually real coexists with the real in your sensorium. Right now the technology depends on head-mounted displays that beam images onto your retina. You can have a table that has both real books and virtual books stacked on it, with a real vase of flowers and a virtual one side by side. The virtual things are computer-generated illusions beamed into your eyes, but when you turn your head they stay where they are, and they're 3-D; they have a sense of reality to them. In Lady of Mazes I explore what it will mean to live in a world where the real and the half-real coexist."

"'Inscape' is my name for a form of augmented reality that's been completely integrated into people's nervous system. Cyberspace is just so-o-o 20th century, ya know. Why have a separate 'space' for your virtual objects when they can coexist with the real ones in your living room or yard? The people in Lady of Mazes are able to tune their experience of the world -- if you don't like somebody, inscape can hide them from your senses and you from theirs, so that you never have to interact with them. If you live in the city but prefer the country, you can adjust your senses so that the skyscrapers look like mountains and the houses look like groves of trees...People who share the same inscape settings inhabit the same "manifold" as I call it -- the same semi-private version of reality. And some of these manifolds are totally invisible to one another."

Schroeder sees science fiction as a major tool for understanding the world. "The alternative to reading SF is to bury your head in the sand. We all have a moral and political responsibility to understand the world because we all have to make political and personal choices about where that world is going to go. I guess one of the reasons for my reputation as a 'hard' SF writer is that I focus strongly on this aspect of SF as tool for understanding."

In his own work, Schroeder feels, "I'm talking about stuff nobody else pays attention to." Lady of Mazes asks if cultural technology can exist; Ventus is about what he calls the "dignity of the real -- a story about respecting the natural world. Not in a tree-hugging sort of crunchy-granola way, but in the sense that nature and humanity are distorted mirror images of one another. You need to combine both images to see reality..."

"These are not," he notes, "the traditional concerns of hard SF."

"I get bored by SF that explores the ideas of science without even noticing the ideas behind those ideas. What I mean is that so much SF comes freighted with a hardwired outlook -- usually optimistic positive rationalism of the gung-ho 'let's fix it!' variety -- and yet the writers seem unaware of their own prejudices. I write about the ideas behind the ideas and, to me, the usual material of SF -- nanotech, genetics, space travel -- are raw material to be used to talk about those other ideas. Whereas most SF seems to be stuck talking only about the surface stuff."

"This may sound pretentious, but I love to combine the 'ooh that's cool' reaction with a kind of paradigm-shift 'aha!' moment of new insight. Just putting one of them into the text isn't enough."

Right now, Karl Schroeder is taking a break from deep questions by writing pirate stories. "Of course," he adds, they're pirate stories set in a world without gravity... But hey, a swordfight is a swordfight, right?"


Karl Schroeder's Web site is New Directions in Science Fiction: kschroeder.com