Wireless - By Charles Stross


Hello, and welcome to Wireless.

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 Interzone 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 any 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 not 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 Carrie, 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 bought it. (And it