(This is the text of a talk I delivered at the Next Frontiers Applied Fiction Day in Stuttgart on Friday November 10th, 2023. Note: early draft, contains some typos, I'll fix them next week when I get home.)

In 2021, writer and game designer Alex Blechman inadvertently created a meme:

Sci-Fi Author: "In my book I invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale."

Tech Company: "At long last, we have created the Torment Nexus from classic sci-fi novel Don't Create The Torment Nexus!"

Hi. I'm Charlie Stross, and I tell lies for money. That is, I'm a science fiction writer: I have about thirty novels in print, translated into a dozen languages, I've won a few awards, and I've been around long enough that my wikipedia page is a mess of mangled edits.

And rather than giving the usual cheerleader talk making predictions about technology and society, I'd like to explain why I—and other SF authors—are terrible guides to the future. Which wouldn't matter, except a whole bunch of billionaires are in the headlines right now because they pay too much attention to people like me. Because we invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale and they took it at face value and decided to implement it for real.

All I can think of right now is that the New Management, which started as a ghastly satire on the UK's government of 2016, now looks impossibly utopian.

In particular the headlines are dominated by the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, which is a shit-show beyond parody. Suella Braverman went full xenophobe (millions and millions of migrants are about to descend on the UK, apparently) then went full Cruella de Ville (stomping on a guide dog's tail at a press conference) because cruelty is her only policy. Rishi Sunak announced transphobia as his only visible policy (before being told that it's probably illegal by Liberty). Then he announced the cancellation of the northern leg of HS2, and patted himself on the back by conceding that the government intended to fund an extension of the Metrolink tram line to Manchester Airport—spoiler: an extension that entered service in 2014.

The only news that makes sense is that Brexiteer Nigel Farage said he would not rejoin the Conservative Party (after Sunak suggested he might be allowed in if he applied)—after all, rats are famous for abandoning sinking ships, not climbing aboard.

Please won't somebody think of the children? No, wait, Rishi Sunak is doing that: he's raising the smoking age so that anyone born after 2008 will never be old enough to legally buy cigarettes, the same day Lord Frost proposed raising the pension age to 75 to cut guvernment spending because heaven forbid that people should be allowed to escape this vale of toil and tears through the blessed mercy of self-inflicted lung cancer.

How the hell am I supposed to parody this?

(On vacation this month, hence lack of blogging ...)

Apparently archaeologists have discovered the eearliest known wooden structure in Kalambo Falls, Zambia: two cut logs bearing tool marks that were shaped and joined to form part of a structure—476,000 years ago. Click through the link above for details as to how they dated it, and why it appears to have survived: it's being reported in Nature so this looks pretty solid, and it's a jaw-dropper. Wood tends to rot, and most wooden structures more than a few centuries old are known to archaeology from the holes they leave in the soil rather than from actual structural remains (much like the lack of paleontological evidence of organisms that don't have a bony skeleton, such as octopi or jellyfish: there are rare imprints but soft tissue seldom fossilizes).

One of the longest-shirked jobs on my to-do list is "Finish the Laundry Files". By which I mean "write the final novel in the story arc that began with The Atrocity Archive and follows Bob Howard through his career", not "finish with that fictional universe". Much like the Merchant Princes series, there are two Laundry universe series in progress—the Bob/secret government agency saga, and the civilians-trying-to-cope under the New Management story. The one ends before the other begins, but unlike the Merchant Princes/Empire Games switch-over, I didn't finish the Laundry Files story before beginning the next one.

(This was accidental on my part. In 2018, I was dealing with a combination of burnout and a dying parent in a nursing facility 300km from home. I wasn't able to focus on the books I was supposed to be working on, so I finally gave myself dispensation to engage in therapy writing—any old shit was better than nothing—and nine months later that turned out to be Dead Lies Dreaming, which promptly demanded two sequels during the bleak onset of Brexit and COVID19. The latter coincidentally spiked my planned solution to CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN so I had to tear it up and start again from scratch.)

Anyway, I'm now at the note-taking stage for two new books. One of them is the fourth New Management novel and no, I have plenty of ideas and don't need your suggestions. But the other is the Final Laundry Files Novel. Again, I don't need plot suggestions—I've got too much plot as it is.

But there is something I do need ...

Setting aside the New Management (but including next year's A Conventional Boy), the Laundry Files currently runs to roughly 1.25 million words of published fiction. That's a lot. It's simultaneously over-familiar to me (there are bits I can quote verbatim, and chunks of back-story I never exposed) and half-forgotten (I began writing it in late 1998, 25 years ago). I don't have the energy to commit to re-reading the entire bookshelf and making notes before I start, but I do need to zero in on anything I've mentally edited out or forgotten and that needs to be closed out: protagonists who went missing en route from book 3 to book 8, for example, or foreign agencies entities that were left hanging at the end of an earlier book.

Fans of the series clearly have Questions to which they want Answers before Bob and Mo are allowed to ride off into the sunset (or un-die horribly in a necromantic re-run of the shoot-out at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—the ending is entirely open at this point). So I'm open to questions in the comments—just don't expect me to answer them directly, or even use them in the final novel. (Some questions may be answered by the New Management series. For example, Persephone Hazard and Johnny McTavish briefly show up in Season of Skulls, which is set 18 months after the end of The Laundry Files. Other questions might be ignored. For example, I see no reason to revisit the Librarian in the Dansey House archive stacks. Let sleeping Terry Pratchett tributes lie!)

So: your starter question is, who (and what) in the Laundry Files do you want to learn the fate of? And what unanswered questions still nag at you, n books later?

(Small print: There is no guarantee that this book will ever be written, and if it is commissioned and written, it won't be published before 2025 and more likely 2026. That's because A Conventional Boy is on its way to publication in summer 2024, and depending on the publishing pipeline, my space opera Ghost Engine might be ready to follow it in 2025, and I don't have the stamina to support a two book a year output cycle any more. However, rest assured, finishing the Laundry Files is still on my to-do list.)

It is August, the month of the Edinburgh Festival, and not being completely suicidal I'm staying indoors (the population triples with visitors from all over the world, and--predictably--the COVID prevalence has doubled in the past week: Edinburgh's in the middle of a sudden pandemic spike). I'm also kinda-sorta between projects: just sent one book to my agent, working on the afterword/notes for another, not yet working on the next.

So I'm taking stock. And it occurs to me that a productive use of my time would be to categorize my novels and stories by sub-genre/trope, and to try to identify areas of SF I haven't written so far because why not go there?

So I blogged about comics (and webcomics in particular) back in June 2015, which is a shockingly long time ago, so I thought I'd post a handful I've enjoyed lately and tout for more reading references!

These are all webcomics (and there are a bunch of others in the previous blog entry from 2015).

Saturday Morning Breakfast Comics is a fine institution, updated most days with a mixture of snarky irreverent commentary on the human condition and the process of doing science!. A vast improvement on BBC Radio 4's execrable "Thought for the Day" slot as a way to start your morning cogitation.

Questionable Content is essentially a soap opera, updated Monday through Friday. Jeph Jacques has been writing and illustrating it for more than twenty years now, and the style and complexity has evolved significantly over that time. There's a huge recurring cast in this near-future SF series, which starts out following the folks who drink and work around a coffee shop in a nameless North American city, and the robots (okay, embodied AIs) they share their lives with. Mostly gentle humour, but not twee.

Unspeakable Vault of Doom by Goomi — updated erratically (rarely these days) but still going, this is Goomi's comedic take on the Lovecraftian mythos. Loveable derpy Cthulhu finds cultists crunchy with ketchup!

Side Quested by K. B. Spangler, author of the Rachel Peng SF novels and others, is a twice-weekly high fantasy quest with a difference, and a notably cynical heroine who is not about to fall for any of that damn' prince's shit.

Foxes in Love Look, this got me through COVID19 lockdown, okay?

Apocamon The Book of Revelation, in Manga format, as God intended. Clearly Patrick Farley is going to burn in the eternal lake of fire for all eternity, and so am I for enjoying this.

Phobos and Deimos Being the teenage experiences of Maida Kilwa, a displaced person/war refugee from 26th century Mars, transplanted to a post-climate change Antarctica. Absorbing world-building and a very not-western future.

Sarah's Scribbles All life is contained in here. Eventually.

(Stuff I covered previously and didn't want to link to again: OGLAF, Kill Six Billion Demons, Strong Female Protagonist, Decrypting Rita, XKCD.)

So, what webcomics are you reading this year?


Please provide links.

(Just naming the webcomics is less than useful in this age of LLM-poisoned search engines that try not to let you find and follow links away from Google, Bing, etc.)

Some of you play tabletop role-playing games (like, oh, D&D). Of those who do, some of you may even have encountered the Laundry Files RPG, published by Cubicle 7 Games back in the mists of 2010.

The Laundry Files RPG had an eight year run before an upstream licensing change forced it to be yanked off sale in 2018. (It used a modified version of the Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu d20 rule set: Chaosium decided to revise their commercial sublicense terms in such a way that C7 couldn't continue to sell the game.)

Anyway, since late 2021 we've been discussing a second edition of the game, this time based on a different ruleset that isn't at risk of being abruptly yanked out from under them. And we're now at the point where it's possible to admit in public that, yes, there's going to be a 2nd edition of the Laundry RPG!

I don't have any further details to share at this time, but I'll update this blog entry as and when I've got something to report.

(While next year's Laundry Files novel, A Conventional Boy, deals with the world of role-playing games, it is not a tie-in and has nothing to do with this announcement. Rather, A Conventional Boy is all about Derek the DM, and the grisly tale of how the Laundry mishandled the Satanic D&D Panic of the mid-1980s ...)

Let me crib from wikipedia for a moment: the Bechdel test, named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, is a measure of the representation of women in film and other fiction. The test asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Once you start looking at popular media, it's striking how common it is for TV, movies, or fiction to fail. Media rep of characters on TV is about 75% male, and it's very common indeed for women to be presented in roles that frame them primarily or exclusively in terms of their gender role.

I've been aware of the Bechdel Test since the late 1990s and actively using it as part of my unconscious checklist for how to write a novel that doesn't suck in some way, but even keeping it in mind, I sometimes fail. And I think it's worth looking at where and why that happens.

So I decided to compile this score card for my books. (SF novels first, then Merchant Princes and Laundry Files.)

This was a very casual off-the-cuff response to an interview I did for Amazing Stories, an online reboot of a famous old pulp SF magazine's brand. The questions were a whole bunch of generic one-liners (pick any five), and this one in particular caught my attention because it pushes one of my hot buttons about SF: "If you were to write a love story between a human and an alien, what challenges would they face?"

We're all grown ups here so I'm not even going to bother looking for a way to ask ChatGPT for its reply. (I refuse to create a ChatGPT account because their user database will be hacked, sooner or later, and for a novelist, to be seen using it is potential career poison.)

I'm afraid I maybe took the question too seriously--or not seriously enough, because it deserves a book-length answer just dissecting the assumptions underlying it and tends to make me twitch uncontrolably and grind my teeth. I field tested my answer on an evolutionary biology professor: feel free to pick nits.

So: "If you were to write a love story between a human and an alien, what challenges would they face?"

(Answer below the fold.)

So, I get these random ideas for SF/F from time to time, and I have no idea what to do with them, and sometimes when I don't want to use them I post them here.

This is one of those. (I have a couple of novel-length projects queued up behind the current work-in-progress: I do not need this right now, for values of "right now" that include the next couple of years by which time everyone will have forgotten this.)

Requirement: How to get a High Fantasy Magic System that kinda-sorta resembles software engineering ...

(This was originally a comment on the preceding thread. I decided to promote it to blog entry, just because.)

If you've read Season of Skulls you probably guessed I did some research on travel in England in 1816 (plus before and after). So, some notes follow ...

Season of Skulls cover

(Season of Skulls is the third book in the New Management trilogy, following on from Dead Lies Dreaming and Quantum of Nightmares. It's an ongoing story ...)

It was a bright, cold morning in Hyde Park, and a detachment of Household Cavalry was riding along North Carriage Drive in parade dress, escorting a tumbril of condemned prisoners to Marble Arch.

Season of Skulls cover

My friendly neighbourhood SF/F bookshop here in Edinburgh, Transreal Fiction, is now taking advance order for signed copies of Season of Skulls (follow the link to the bookshop's blog).

(I'll probably be popping in to sign stock at other bookshops in the area, but Transreal is the place to put down advance orders. Note that they won't be mailed out until on or after the official publication date.)

I am a Republican[*].

On the occasion of the horrifically expensive and pointless coronation of King Charles III I want to state clearly: I want to live in a nation governed with the consent of the people, rather than by the divine right of kings.

We got through seventy-plus years under the reign of Elizabeth II without too much controversy over her role. Credit where credit's due: she managed the duties of head of state with dignity and diligence for decades on end, even if a lot of skeletons were forcibly locked in closets (consider what NDA Prince Andrew's victim much have been required to pay in return for a royal cash pay-out, or what acts of parliament were modified or never brought forward because the monarch didn't want to see them). And even if she and her family came out considerably richer at the end of her reign, even accounting for inflation.

(One thing I'll say about the House of Windsor: they don't engage in vulgar looting of the British state on the same scale as, say, the Putin family in Russia. But the Windsors have reason to be confident they'll be around for generations. A burglar doesn't need to hurry if the police are there to guard their back.)


Elizabeth Windsor is dead. Her successor is a snobbish, reactionary seventy-six year old multi-billionaire. He's so divorced from the ordinary lived experience of his subjects that he reportedly can't even dress himself.

I didn't vote for him.

Nobody did. Nobody does. Nobody ever will, because this is not a democracy.

There is no democratic accountability in monarchy. As a system of government, in undiluted form it most resembles a hereditary dictatorship — current poster-child: Kim Jong-Il. The form we have in the UK is not undiluted: Parliament asserted its supremacy with extreme prejudice in 1649, and again in 1688, and ever since then the British monarchy has been a constitutional, rather than an absolute one — a situation that leaves odd constitutional echoes, such as the fact that we have a Royal Navy but we a British Army (loyal to Parliament, and not under royal command).

For the Americans reading this blog, let me provide a metaphor: let us postulate the existence in the antebellum Deep South of benevolent, morally righteous slaveowners who did not flog or rape or oppress their slaves. (I know, I know ... it's a thought experiment, okay?) Would that be enough to exculpate the institution of slavery? I'm pretty sure the answer lies somewhere been "no!" and "hell, no!" Slavery is an inherently oppressive institution because it deprives a class of victims of their most basic right to autonomy. The failure of a [hypothetical] individual slave-owner to be corrupted does not invalidate the corrupt nature of the system.

Similarly, the existence of benevolent, incorruptible, morally righteous monarchs who do not tyrannise their subjects citizens does not redeem the institution of monarchy.

Both slavery and monarchy are affronts to the principle that all people are equal in law. They may differ in detail of degree or circumstance — after all, is anyone seriously comparing King Charles to Kim Jong-Il, or Henry VIII? — but the very existence of the institution is, in and of itself, dehumanizing.

Now we are being treated to the sight of a billionaire scion of a hereditary dictatorship being feted with a £50M party and national holiday to celebrate his unelected ascent to the highest office in the land. It is, of course, a religious ceremony—the religion in question being a state-mandated Christian church of which maybe 10% of the population are adherents to any extent—but hey, pay no attention to us apostates. This is happening in the middle of a ghastly polycrisis, with inflation running in double digits, the Bank of England advising people to "accept that you are poorer" as a result of the government's ghastly mishandling of brexit and the post-COVID economy, a government actively trying to suppress voter groups who don't support them and refusing to track numbers of those turned away at the polls, jailing political dissidents, ignoring their obligations under international law on refugees ... in the middle of this mess our quasi-fascist government is trying to distract us with an appeal to tradition! pomp! ceremony! dignity! and the usual tired bullshit the right roll out whenever they don't have a coherent plan for fixing the damage.

And I just want to say: not in my name.

The system is morally bankrupt and it's past time to tear it down.

[*] I use "Republican" to mean "supporter of a republican form of government"; I despise the USA's Republican Party and everything they stand for this century.

SPECIAL OFFER (USA Only): today and tomorrow (April 27th/28th) Barnes and Noble are running a special 25% off promotion on pre-orders of books with voucher code PREORDER25. This includes Season of Skulls, so if you want it and haven't ordered a paper copy yet, B&N is a good bet. Here's their page for Season of Skulls.

So, just to avoid the threat of silence, here's a little hyper-local author-specific news.

Firstly, Season of Skulls should be in shops in the next few weeks! While the official publication dates are the 16th (in the USA) and the 18th (in the UK), physical hardcovers now exist—at least of the British edition from Orbit: my author copies arrived. (The US hardcovers are probably in transit.) Audiobook versions are in the works but may not surface until some time after the physical publication date—work on recording the audio edition doesn't start until the page proofs of the print edition are signed off on (because that's what they're based off of).

Next up: I don't have a publication date yet, but the next book after Season of Skulls will be back to the Laundry Files proper with A Conventional Boy—a short novel about Derek the DM, the Satanic D&D Panic of the 1980s and its long-term consequences, and, oh, more Iris Carpenter. Forthcoming some time in 2024 from Orbit and Tor.com.

(Back when I began planning it in 2009 ACB was going to be a short story, but it grew more complex over time and now it's ... well, it's a Laundry novel, longer than any novella has a right to be albeit a bit shorter than The Atrocity Archive.)

On an entirely different note ... I had had hoped to have some news about the 2nd edition Laundry Files role playing game, but nope: not ready for an announcement yet because nothing runs to schedule. Sorry. (But it is in the works now, and hopefully you should be able to get your hands on it this year.)

As for what happens after that? I'm still wrestling with the long-delayed space opera Ghost Engine which I started in 2015 (lots of stuff got in the way! No, seriously), but hope to have it finished this summer and hopefully scheduled for publication after A Conventional Boy. And then I need to either start work on the Last Laundry Novel (working title: "Bob Bows Out"—but that's obviously not the final title it'll appear under), or the fourth New Management book. (In which Imp gets bored with Peter Pan and decides to use the ghost roads to film a new movie, on location: Narnia Porn. Because what could possibly go wrong?)

And finally, something completely different.




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