An Interview with C.S. Friedman

Speculative fiction author C.S. Friedman has released a sequel to her cyberpunk hit This Alien Shore, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1998. The new novel titled This Virtual Night follows unlikely allies Ru Gaya, a risk-loving mercenary explorer, and Micah Bello, brilliant VR game designer, as they follow the trail of an unknown entity with the power to technologically alter human perception: a power that could cause the collapse of civilization as they know it. The third installment of the Outworlds series (no release date yet) is tentatively titled This Variant Tide. Friedman is also known for her popular Coldfire series.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her about the implications of virtual reality, the power of mega-corporations, her experience as a woman in the science fiction/fantasy world, and the writing process.

What inspired you to publish this sequel now, over 20 years after This Alien Shore was published?

TAS is my most popular SF work, and It’s the only thing I’ve written that was specifically designed to support more than one novel. The universe of TAS has almost limitless potential for exploring alien settings and testing the nature of humanity, the two things that make SF exciting for me. It had been a while since I had written a SF novel, so when I decided it was time to do so again, a return to the Outworlds seemed the logical choice.

What would you say are the main themes for This Virtual Night?

I have to smile when you ask that, because despite the best efforts of high school teachers to explain the importance of “theme”, I don’t think I really understood why it mattered until I started writing.

Cyberpunk introduced the concept of human minds plugged directly into a data network, but rarely explored how that would impact the human soul. That is the primary theme of the entire series, and I intend to explore one aspect of it in each book. In TAS, I asked what a computer virus might become, in a world where it could invade and alter human minds. TVN asks where the line between reality and virtual reality can drawn—and should be drawn–when the latter is fed directly into the human brain. Every new technology brings with it new challenges to the human spirit, and sometimes threats humans did not anticipate; SF allows us to explore what those might be.

On the Gueran front, TAS presented a society whose raison d’etre was the accommodation of human cognitive diversity. Well, is there a condition which might not fit in, even there? Which would prove so problematic that Gueran society must provide special strategies to deal with it? Ru’s risk-seeking compulsion threatens the welfare of others, and so cannot simply be tolerated.  How then can it be channeled, in a way that is true to the Gueran ideal? And how does that reflect upon real-world history, in particular the actions of ancient explorers?

Racism is a major theme of the series, even more timely now than when the first book was written.  The physical differences between Variants are dramatic and undeniable, and the refusal of the Terrans to accept Variants as humans echoes the intolerance in Earth’s history, as does the fear at its root.  TVN gives us a closer look at the relationship between Terrans and Variants, and how racial stresses have impacted their development.

Both books deal with the thin line between sophisticated learning programs and actual consciousness. Where does life begin? If a computer program acts like a living creature, how must we deal with it?

Given the prevalence of augmented reality and virtual reality in both your novels, how do you feel about the real-world advancements in this technology? How has your perception of AR and VR changed since you released the original book? Do these continuing developments excite you, or frighten you?

I think it’s clear in my books that advancements in virtual technology should be both exciting and frightening. This reflects the Frankenstein motif that has been part of SF since Mary Shelly launched the genre: the more miraculous science becomes, the more likely it is to go wrong in some way we did not foresee. VR could easily become drug-like in its capacity for addiction: when you can make reality look like whatever you want, why bother with the real thing? Already we are seeing teens who prefer interaction on social media to real human contact.  As a SF writer, it is my job to explore how such advances might affect us.

Scientists are now experimenting with “headsets” of contacts that can sense subtle currents of electromagnetism within the brain.  By learning to control those currents, one can use the headset to control a computer. Let me tell you, it is both humbling and thrilling to realize that a technology you wrote about 20 years ago is now coming into existence. The only real difference is that I used visualization to control neural output, because vision maps so neatly onto the brain. So instead of “learn to activate this portion of your brain,” the instruction would be “visualize a circle”. Science will catch up with me eventually.  Another recent experiment mapped activity in the visual cortex and tried to derive an image from it, with promising results. So maybe in the end, science will travel the path I envisioned.   

Both books in the series seem to have some clear anti-capitalist/corporation sentiments. With such a long break between the two books, was there a particular reason you felt like now was the time to return to these themes?

I disagree with you about the anti-capitalist message. There is certainly a warning about the power of mega-corporations, and how that power might be abused. And how timely an issue that is now, with the current investigation into the behavior of our tech giants!  Such companies have moved off-planet in my book, building themselves mini-worlds in which they answer to no one.  Even in the Outworlds they refuse to surrender their autonomy, creating technological fiefdoms that war with each other like barbarian kingdoms. But telling the tale of how vast riches and technological monopolies have created a group of corrupt, power-hungry entities is not the same as saying “Capitalism is bad.” The most successful economies on earth combine capitalist and socialist elements, and so does the economy of the Common Law worlds, as is evident in TVN.

Never assume that the qualities inherent in a “bad guy” are intended as a political statement. Sometimes a story is just a story.

Though I definitely have a bone to pick with advertising practices. That one I’ll own.

What came first for you for This Virtual Night: the plot, setting, or the characters?

Characters and theme came first in this series.  Who are my main characters? What technology am I going to explore?  How will that technology pose a danger to humanity?  As the character of Micah took shape, I started thinking about what types of events he would handle better because of his experience in designing games.  That helped me shape the setting and the plot.

I did know from day one that I wanted part of the book to be set in an interstellar version of Nassau during the pirate era.  Just because that would be so much fun to write. The place where outlaws come to spend their money and let off steam.

This Alien Shore seems to explore a variety of neurodivergent POV characters, while This Virtual Night felt less focused on this subject. Why?

Well, I don’t like to repeat myself.  TAS introduced us to Gueran society. By TVN, that society is part of the established setting.  I want each book to be full of new ideas and unique stories.  Too much of a focus on that one theme risks a “been-there-done-that” feeling.

Ru’s Variation drives much of the story, but because she goes from one dangerous situation to another, it’s not a noticeable effect.

What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing, and how did you work through it? 

The ending, because so many different elements had to come together with perfect timing. I spent a lot of time chatting with a specialist in high tech weapons (he’s mentioned in the acknowledgements) to make sure the part which relied upon that element was as faithful to real science as it could be. Unfortunately, I can’t talk more about that without spoiling some surprises, so let’s just say…it was a challenge.

Tell me about which character was most challenging to write.

Probably Ivar. He was a pretty simple concept when I started out—a stranded lowlife with no interest in anyone’s welfare but his own—but as the story developed I realized it would benefit from him playing a larger role. That brought with it a new narrative challenge, namely the fact that no one in their right mind would trust him, or any information he supplied. So I had to redesign the character a bit, as well as the world he came from, to make it all work. Micah and Ru still don’t trust him worth a damn, but are willing to risk a brief alliance of purpose on the off chance it will get them where they need to go.

In past interviews, you mention knowing little about computers. Does this still hold true? How does this impact your research for sci-fi, and for this book in particular?

Well, I know more than I did 20 years ago, lol.  But I still rely heavily upon more knowledgeable people to help me realize my vision, and to make sure my jargon sounds right.  I have an ex-hacker among my betas who helps me a lot. I’m also active on Quora, a question-answer site, and often there are questions like, “What sorts of things do science fiction writers often get wrong?”  The number one computer-related complaint is that hacking is treated like magic. Often on TV and in movies we see a hacker announce that the file he needs has a password, then reams of numbers scroll across the screen and he concentrates VERY hard, and voila! He’s in! Not only is that unrealistic from a practical standpoint, but password acquisition is often not done on computers at all, but through “social engineering”—tricking people into giving you the information you need.  I couldn’t resist poking fun at the Hollywood cliché:

As soon as they were through Ru turned back to find the control panel on that side, and as Micah leaned against the wall, trying to catch his breath, she shut the door again. “Can you lock it?” she asked. “So it can’t be opened from the other side?“

“I can try.” He pushed himself away from the wall and took her place in front of the panel. It took little effort for him to access the hatch’s settings, but altering them turned out to be a whole other challenge. “It needs an administrative code, “ he muttered. “Which I don’t have.”

“Can you hack it?”

He looked at her. “You’re joking, right?”

And later:

There was silence for a moment. Finally Roz said, “Does anyone have a copy of Harmony’s administrative codes? ‘Cause right now the whole station is on holiday, which means there’s no office that we can scam to get them.”

It’s my hope that by working closely with people who have the knowledge I lack, I can weave a good enough story that those who do have such knowledge will enjoy it.

Can you tell us anything about your plans for future novels set in this universe? You mention in another interview that the main characters from This Virtual Night will appear again. Will we ever see characters (or easter eggs) from This Alien Shore again?

I’ll answer the second part first.  No, I have no plans to revisit those characters.  Their story ended the way I wanted it to, and I like to leave my reader wondering what would come next for them.  However, as I wrote This Virtual Night, I found myself enjoying the relationship between my main characters so much, I wanted to feature them in at least one more book. And I think they have the potential to be the focal point for some interesting adventures. So they were written with that in mind.

My next book is tentatively titled This Variant Tide. It will feature a murder mystery that leads Micah and Ru into the world of the moddies–people who have their brainware altered illegally. The relationship between bodily alteration and identity will be explored–another very timely theme–and the Guerans’ tolerance for mental diversity will be tested. My editor tells me the antagonist for that book is one of the darkest concepts she has ever seen in the genre.  I’m very excited about the project and think it will be great third installment in the Outworlds saga.

What originally attracted you to the science fiction/fantasy genre?

When I was 12 years old, my family travelled to Europe.  Our last stop was Paris, and we were exhausted. It was also the middle of a brutal heat wave, so my parents decided we would take the day off from sightseeing and just relax for a day. I was a compulsive reader in my youth, and since I had no book with me I headed down to Le Drugstore to see what I could find in English. The only book that looked interesting was a collection of short stories by someone named Isaac Asimov, Earth is Room Enough. Reading those stories, I realized that science fiction was the ultimate form of literature in the universe.

Why? Because it is a literature of ideas.  Because it explores the question of what makes us human, as no other genre does.  Because it stimulates the brain to wonder about distant worlds and possible technologies, all while delivering a story that possesses the classic elements of a great narrative. Science fiction allows us to step outside of our world—outside of ourselves—and thus gain a new perspective on both.  

You started your career with a gender-neutral name. In a blog post from a few years ago, you mentioned that if you were starting out today, you’d probably use your full name. Can you speak to your experiences as a woman author in the often-male-dominated SFF world? What advice would you give to female writers?

When I started writing, the majority of SF readers were males, as were the writers. Many readers believed that women could not write “real science fiction”, and some males would not purchase a SF book by a female writer. So many female writers in that time period went by their initials, and a couple used male pen names. One DAW writer used two pen names: a female one, to write science fiction focused on social elements, and a male one, to write rock-em sock-em military SF.

My first book had strong male and female protagonists, and elements that would appeal to both genders, so we felt that in using my initials would remove my sex from the marketing equation, and allow my books to speak for themselves.  In fact, my editor and I decided to run an experiment, and not reveal my gender at all. We were curious as to what sex readers would guess I was, just based on my writing style.  All the early marketing materials avoided the use of pronouns, so that there were no clues.

And the results? Roughly 50-50, with readers tending slightly more toward believing I was female, and marketing folks tending slightly toward male.  I was very proud of that. I was proud that when male readers found out I was a woman, they often asked me how I  knew so much about the way men thought. (“I ask them” was the answer). A good writer should be able to write characters of either gender without imposing their own experience upon them.

My advice for women is the same as for men.  A good book has strong characters, interesting themes, and compelling action.  Make sure your work has all three, and both men and women will enjoy reading it.

What risks have you taken with your writing that have paid off?

Writing books in different styles and subjects, rather than returning to the same world again and again. It’s much easier to make money writing series.  In that sense, I can’t say my decision “paid off.”  But my career has been much more satisfying for me this way, and I grew much more as a writer than if I had limited myself to one universe from the start.

You used to work as a professional costume designer. How does that experience influence how you develop your novels?

Actually, I am so conscious of how my interest in the field might skew my writing that I sometimes under-describe clothing, to compensate. In the beginning my editor was constantly asking me to flesh out my descriptions. That said, my first novel featured a society obsessed with how they presented themselves to others, and clothing was a key part of that.

Was there any media that particularly influenced the aesthetic of this series?

Nope.

What are some of your recent must-read titles in science fiction and fantasy (last 5 years)?

I’m a bad one to ask, as I’m just coming out of a period when I didn’t write or read much. I have a lot to catch up on.

What are some trends in your genre that excite you?

Space opera is becoming popular again, which is great, because that is what I enjoy writing.

What question do you wish you would get asked in interviews, and what’s the answer?

I think you’ve covered it all here 🙂

Read This Virtual Night by C.S. Friedman

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Julia Frazer

Julia Frazer has been a devoted science fiction and fantasy reader since elementary school. Her favorite books involve women who kick ass. She is based in sunny California.