Interview: Susan Shwartz

By Lesley McBain

If all authors can be said to live in multiple worlds simultaneously, Susan Shwartz [website] is an exception even among science fiction and fantasy writers. By day, she is a vice president of marketing at a multinational Wall Street corporation; by night (and weekend) she writes Star Trek novels, science fiction, and fantasy. She has written, cowritten, or edited 27 books, with two more under contract, and 67 short stories, novelettes, and novellas. She has been nominated twice for the Hugo, five times for the Nebula, and once each for the World Fantasy and Edgar awards. Her most recent books, forthcoming and published, are Exodus: Vulcan's Soul Trilogy, Book 1 (Pocket, 08/04, with Josepha Sherman) and Hostile Takeover (Tor, 12/04).

Hostile Takeover draws on her decades of experience in business and finance to create a hard SF extrapolation set in a business environment. How is this different from the global visions of the future developed by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and other writers? And what's it like to be a Star Trek writer working in a highly corporate world, anyway?

Lesley McBain: To start off, what's the culture of Hostile Takeover? How does it differ from what we've seen in the works of Gibson and other SF writers who write about global cultures?

Susan Shwartz: It's a downbeat culture that still has positive elements: underclass people like CC, the novel's protagonist, are able to bootstrap themselves out of the underclass by using their wits and their work ethic. The difference between success and failure is working within the system and making positive choices. Selling out and selling others out is possible, but it's not the moral choice.

The point is to get past the darkness and into the light. Hostile Takeover is one of the lightest-feeling books I've written in that respect. It's one thing to sit at home in comfort and read about alienated characters, but if you actually lived in the downbeat cultures envisioned by some other SF authors, you'd probably open your veins out of sheer despair.

I see a lot of characters portrayed as heroic individuals crushed by the system, who can't win, where the culture is down and dirty, and there is a deliberately downbeat ethic. This ethic is the reverse of what I personally find admirable (your mileage may differ): "edgy" and "pessimistic" are praiseworthy and realistic; optimism need not apply. Personally, I think it's ironic that people make their mortgage money and probably a good deal more by showing just how horrible the techno-underclass of the future has it, but then I never was much for romantic angst.

Maybe this kind of disillusionment stems from Vietnam and the New Wave SF writers, though there's a dark thread running through Heinlein's and Anderson's works as well. What I see these days, however, is more of an emphasis on radical chic, but portraying hip and knowing to me isn't nearly as fun as writing about James T. Kirk. For me, world-weariness just doesn't have the same resonance as the epic survival characteristics of Charles Reymont, the hero of Poul Anderson's Tau Zero, who can face the heat death of the universe and figure out how to move on from there. I have to say I find "all's cheerless, dark and deadly" (as in King Lear) a bit much for most novels when we're safe in our comfortable chairs.

This self-gratulatory pessimism reminds me of the comparison Tolkien makes in "On Faery Stories" between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. It's not that the downbeat protagonists are deserters, but I believe there have to be better futures out there than dystopias, and I'd be glad to see writers focus on them for a change. I never was much for getting off on despair.

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That may be naïve of me, but after more than 20 years in New York and on Wall Street, if the naïveté has survived, it's probably a survival positive. At least, right now, let's hope so. Besides, I'm in good company. Look at Samwise Gangee's speech in the film version of Tolkien's The Two Towers: Sean Astin's wonderful portrayal of a working-class hobbit talking about how there has to be something out there to make life worth living. I think if a writer closes off too many options, if a writer focuses too much on the awfulness of just everything, the book becomes a wallow. It's very tricky to arrive at a realistic balance in anything without wallowing.

The problem of wallowing in darkness, violence, and despair shows up, in my opinion, in a lot of genre fiction where the characterization is cardboard because I just don't think the writer has thought it through. For instance, there's the sort of militaristic SF that's awash in alien blood and manifest destiny, but the reader has no sense of consequences: that there is a price to be paid, both on the personal and the political levels, for every action.

So many books I've scanned from time to time are filled with intrepid computer programmers, marginal creative types, and disconsolate veterans in downbeat SF novels, all of whom are two-dimensional, but all of whom are somehow worth having hundreds of thousands of words written about them. It isn't just that I dislike these characters; because they're cardboard, I never get the chance to know them. What I do know is that, as I read about them, they don't match my experience of the world. They're also an awfully limited sampling.

One group that tends to get left out of this roster of potential protagonists is anyone from the world of business unless, of course, a writer wants an adult, but cardboard, baddie to oppose the programmer, guitarist, or other unlikely hero.

Admittedly, on first glance, a business person is not the likeliest hero for fantasy or SF. This poses a challenge for me as a writer that I can't refuse. What do you do with a character from the business world who spends so much of his or her life in a regimented environment, not just in terms of professional expectations, but in terms of time?

Getting time to perform the actions in a story is a real problem if you're working 9 to 5 or 8 until you finish what you've got in your in-box. A rock musician in a novel can spend hours on a plot point and then go to sleep. A freelancer has time to spend exploring, even if there's going to be problems paying the rent. In contrast, a middle management character has to remember she's got a staff meeting at 8 AM the next morning, and she needs to be awake for it. If I choose a businessperson as a protagonist, this means I have to work these time constraints into the story, along with the clothes, speech patterns, and overall habits of this character—which differs from industry to industry and by the character's place in the corporate chain of command.

One place where Hostile Takeover is similar to very high tech and very downbeat novels is that it too assumes a multicultural environment. I'm not just writing about nice white guys from the Midwest, and no self-respecting company would hire only those people, for fear of lawsuits. You see parallel global concepts in TV SF writing: in the original Trek series, a few years after the Bay of Pigs, the show began to portray people getting over individual biases and adopting a more global perspective. Next Generation was global but slightly antiseptic, which led into the grit of Deep Space Nine. In Babylon 5, (which isn't just multiracial, but multispecies) the characters aren't all ship captains—they're military administrators. Two of the most interesting figures to me in Babylon 5, in fact, are the chief warrant officers running Security.

LMB: Some would argue that business-oriented characters aren't interesting enough to write about, in SF or otherwise. What's your opinion?

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SS: Look at Enron: corporate whistleblowers were heroes there. There's tragedy and grandeur in business every bit as interesting as that of Aragorn and Arwen in Tolkien, and betrayals as sad as that of Boromir; Arthur Miller did the payment for betrayal in All my Sons and the tragedy in Death of a Salesman, after all. Attention really must be paid.

And in some ways, writing about large-scale business is like writing about kings and queens, in terms of responsibility and power. Multinational corporations have larger budgets than some countries today; the greatest movers and shakers have immense power and form corporate dynasties, and the games played in the background are at least as Byzantine as medieval politics. It reminds me of the Romulans, who are favorites of mine: Byzantines with pointed ears, even if they do have awful uniforms.

In Hostile Takeover, it seems logical for me to extrapolate that the movers and shakers at multinationals could expand their roles into the political sphere even more than they do now. Just think of Jon Corzine, formerly of Goldman Sachs, now a Democratic senator from New Jersey and considering a run for governor. Given that these things are happening in the real world, it made sense to give the multinational (hell, multiplanetary) corporations seats in the U.N. and their own ambassadors. This isn't money worship—I've worked with the stuff too long to have an attitude that unhealthy about it. This is simple extrapolation.

It's also an area that hasn't been done to death because most writers don't come out of a corporate background. As a general rule, we're not brilliant nonconformists in our daily lives; we're parts of much larger entities. That's not a very romantic point of view, but unfortunately, in the greater scheme of things, most of us are Prufrock more than we are Prince Hamlet—and does anyone still read T.S. Eliot anymore?

For me, it's interesting to explore a character who isn't an artist or a self-conscious loner, but a middle manager who's acting against what readers consider type and disappointing their immediate expectations. Readers may find things in my characters and their situations to identify with. I hope they do. But there's very little wish-fulfillment and no granola to crunch: it's a tough environment, not a pretty one, even though space is beautiful. I tried for that sort of toughness in Second Chances (also from Tor), but Hostile Takeover is actually much more upbeat.

Most companies in SF novels aren't realistic anyway, because writers are looking at business from the outside. For many writers, the real status symbol is being able to quit their day jobs, which aren't really career posts. But business is my environment, so I know I can get the facts right on that.

LMB: How did you build the world for Hostile Takeover? What kind of adjustments did you have to make to blend business extrapolation and SF extrapolation?

SS: I had to give serious thought not just to the business aspects of the story, but to the nuts and bolts of financial services as well. In other words, I had to think not just about how the culture would work, but how the financial instruments and investment strategies and technology might work in the future. To start with, I had to extrapolate how financial services would function if they were conducted in a multiplanetary context.

Let me explain. Today, if you want to buy or sell shares of stock or of a mutual fund, you call your broker, or you send an e-mail to a discount broker, or however you buy stock online (I'm barred from doing that because of where I work). This order that you've created is sent to an exchange such as the New York Stock Exchange to be executed and confirmed. You will receive a confirmation statement, and the transaction will show up on your monthly report as well.

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Now, if you execute too many of these transactions too quickly, the Securities and Exchange Commission may get interested in you and send you a notice that it's going to investigate you for what's called market timing. This is a very serious charge. If you're guilty, it's a very quick way to get yourself fired, fined, imprisoned at the very worst, probably banned from the industry for life, or all sorts of other things that can really ruin your day, including truly horrendous legal bills.

The thing about these trades is that today's technology allows lots of them—more than a billion a day at this point—to go through very rapidly. Now, let's look at the markets of the future. The further you get from Earth, it takes longer for trades to go through because of signal delays: trades just don't travel at the speed of light. So, there's a lag time in communications between, say, Earth and Mars, and it's even longer by the time you get out toward the asteroid belt.

The question of how fast you can actually trade securities poses both an SF question and a business question that I had to answer before I went any further. It takes eight minutes for light to reach Earth. Let's say it takes another eight minutes for it to get to Mars. That's eight minutes that your trade isn't getting processed. You could be losing money during that time.

What's more, what happens if the transmission is interfered with by something like sunspots, which create a lot of static? Would your trade be garbled so you'd have to break it? Or would you find that you'd bought 100 shares of Pan-Galactic Gargleblasters when you'd meant to buy a pharmaceutical company? Believe me, this isn't all that far-fetched. There's a sunspot index even now in the financial markets, along with the hemline index, and a bunch of others.

To solve the problem of communications and the transmissions of trades, I created Bloomberg Boosting Units that orbit throughout the solar system. I named them after the mayor of New York, because of the Bloomberg machines that replaced the Quotrons that replaced ticker-tape.

Does anyone remember ticker tape?

In my story, when someone places an order, here's how the Bloomberg Boosting Units, or BBUs, work. The buy or sell signal is encrypted and transmitted to a BBU where it's received, decrypted, cleaned up, reencrypted, and sent to the next BBU. To avoid problems with time zones on and off Earth, signals are time-stamped Greenwich Mean Time before and after sending them, and trades are processed by the order in which they are received. So someone on Mars gets as much of a chance at the best possible price as someone in New York. And if the market is really hot, you break the time stamps down into the smallest possible fractions of a second so all the trades get filled in the order they are received.

Another instance of combining the extrapolation of SF and business is in terraforming. Everyone talks about it, but no one talks about how to pay for it. One problem is what we hear these days with privatization of the space program: private industry refuses to think beyond next quarter's revenues and earnings per share. Actually, this isn't true of many companies, such as aerospace companies that have long, long production lines. They extend their forecasts into what are called the outyears—a number of years beyond the present time or next year for which, nevertheless, they calculate earnings per share.

That may be long enough to build a jet plane's prototype and put it into production. However, it's not long enough to terraform a planet or even blast a colony into the rock of an asteroid. Personally, when it comes to terraforming, I see a correlation with the settling of America either by gentleman adventurers without enough capital or organizations like the East India Company.

The first thing you need to do for ventures like this is raise money. Right now, venture capital tends to exit a given investment in ten years. You need more time than that. So the best way to get the funding and the time you need to build your colony is to borrow the money by issuing bonds.

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The problem with the bonds is that, at some point, people are going to want their money back. If you've bought bonds into your 401(k), you know that bonds mature at different times. For terraforming, what you need is long bonds. Very long ones. Now, we used to have a 30-year Treasury, and there are some bonds called Century bonds that mature in 100 years. But those bonds are nowhere near long enough.

So I had to build some that would work. Before I did that, I had to figure out who was going to issue the bonds. I thought that the likeliest lender—that is, the lender with the most money—would probably be a nation. Bonds issued by a nation are what the bond experts call "sovereign" bonds because they are issued by a nation and backed with what "bondos," or bond specialists, call that nation's "full faith and credit." Now, you might also get revenue bonds: which means that the money would be paid back by revenue from, say, a dam or a highway, or from the leases on a spaceship, or from your colony's operations once it gets up and running. But the problem is that these bonds don't carry the full faith and credit guarantee. This means they are riskier. To get people to buy them, you'll have to pay more interest, and you don't want to do that. Or, to make them less risky, you could insure them, but you'd have to pay a lot for it.

Now, you could get the biggest and richest companies to issue this type of bond, but it's not likely. For one thing, corporate debt tends to be riskier than sovereign debt. It also tends not to stick around for a couple of hundred years, because companies tend not to last that long. That creates another problem: what happens when the bond matures?

As I see it, it will take a couple of hundred years to terraform a planet. If an entity issues a bond with, say, a four-hundred-year maturity, what guarantee does an investor (or the investor's heirs) have that that issuer's going to be around when the bond matures? We know companies liquidate, but we've also seen countries go away. Consider the Soviet Union. It came into existence, then went away within the same century.

There's a way around this: in the industry, it's called a "sunset provision." What this provision does is outline and nail down what would happen if the issuer suddenly ceased to exist. In other words, would a bond issued by the USSR then become an obligation of Russia?

Then, consider who'd own these bonds. Because these bonds take centuries to mature, it would make sense for institutions—pension funds, university endowments, trust funds—to own them, rather than individuals, because those institutions are likelier to last longer than individual investors.

However, there is one situation in which it might be smart for individuals to buy these very long-term bonds: if they were going into deep freeze (see Heinlein's The Door Into Summer). Of course, you'd want to make certain that these bonds kept up with the rate of inflation, or you'd be waking up with mature bonds, but not enough money.

I actually ran this idea by some bond managers on Wall Street. They laughed and said, "This is crazy and it would work." In fact, they compared it to the issuing of railroad bonds in the nineteenth century.

But I didn't just have bonds on the brain. My thought process while writing Hostile Takeover was also influenced by seeing so many things that renew a sense of wonder about what's going on in our solar system, like the discovery of water on Mars and Quaoar. Part of my research, in fact, was looking at pictures of asteroids; a gap the size of a state gouged out of Vesta became an inspiration. It's the first time as a writer I've actually been on a market trend. Mostly, in market terms, I'm a contrarian when it comes to writing, and no, I don't do it on purpose.

I didn't count on the securities scandals that happened while I was writing, but the SEC or its equivalent is always going to be there. Audits are always going to happen. Extrapolating a society where humans don't conduct business just on Earth anymore means more room for dishonesty, and it also means more room for audits, bureaucracy, and simple human frustration. In short, there's going to be a lot more lawyers. I got help from some compliance professionals with the legal and regulatory aspects of Hostile Takeover. It was funny, in a gallows humor sort of way, to watch their expressions as I explained what I needed.

LMB: So do businesspeople really read SF/fantasy?

SS: When they have time to read fiction at all, yes. Computer professionals in my organization read SF, but so do others. You never know. For instance, a colleague who was senior to me at one point is an enormous Harry Potter fan. We raced each other through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I've had requests for autographed copies of my Trek novels from people in other areas of my organization who want to buy them for their relatives. (The books show up in interoffice mail, I autograph them, put them back into the envelope, and send them back downtown.)

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Some of my colleagues Google me and check out my writing; one of them was impressed I'd written a Vogue article reviewing Jean Auel's The Mammoth Hunters. I announced the publication of Vulcan's Soul after a staff meeting, and they're threatening a publication party for Hostile Takeover.

Today, a coworker in our London office and I were wishing we could get orcs to invade the place.

I do see an antibusiness bias in the SF field, though, usually expressed by writers using businesses only as clichéd backgrounds for the heroic outsider/freelancer character with toeholds and contacts. These companies aren't realistic; they're like the Evil Corporation in Alien. Actually, that makes sense. If you know business only from the viewpoint of a temp or a freelancer, or your knowledge of business is restricted to one industry (say, publishing or media in general) you're going to get this sort of reaction because you're writing about something you don't know about and coming up with cardboard.

LMB: To switch topics, you write both historical fantasy and SF. What are your thoughts on writing fantasy?

SS: Fantasy is an aristocratic genre. It's wonderful if you can write, as Lloyd Alexander did, about an assistant pigkeeper who becomes high king, but how many people can start that low and get that high? It's hard to do without training. To say nothing of magic. Historical fantasy deals with known people: if you want to work in an exception to the local class structure, you've got problems on your hands unless you're writing about Joan of Arc or the Children's Crusade, which is a subject I've got my eye on.

The research? Think Ph.D. level research, but without the footnotes, and you don't have to read in languages other than English, though I usually wind up doing so.

For instance: writing about the battle of Manzikert in Shards of Empire was harder than doing the extrapolation for Hostile Takeover. I know how people in finance may behave, but I'm a lifelong civilian: show me a sword, and I might cut myself or someone else.

Dealing with Manzikert, I was working in the late eleventh century and had to proceed with care because I was dealing with strategy, tactics, and weapons that were 1,000 years old. I also had to take care because I was a civilian (and a woman) writing about a ghastly, bloody defeat that really did change the course of history in the Near East. I didn't want to be disrespectful or write a bloodbath without care for the people and the costs to individuals. Writing that battle like a 1950s cowboys shoot-'em-up would have violated the facts of the case. I also had to try to be not completely unrealistic in conveying the feelings of a young Byzantine noble.

Plus, there were horses at Manzikert, and I'm not a rider. Someone had to take care of the horses and I had to remember that. My usual research sources, a Marine colonel and an Army Corps of Engineers colonel, were pleased to say it was credible.

LMB: Finally, what kinds of books do you like as a reader? Why?

SS: I like books where an author is willing to go to the limits of his/her strength and talent and see what happens; maybe they're not the books to read when you have the sniffles, but I find them more appealing than ones about plucky young boy mages or heroic young girls who can do all the things boys can do. Those are good starting places, but where do the characters go from there? That's what interests me, rather than the initial "me, too!" premise. Or all the generic comfiness, which Diana Wynne Jones satirizes in her wonderful Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

By going to the limits, I mean books like Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's The Healer's War and Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark: those books take real risks, and I just cross my fingers and hope they do well because I respect courage in a writer. To me, that's not the same as blood and guts; it's following the character and plot logic and subtext wherever they lead. As Le Guin says, if you look at these types of books and these types of characters, they look back. They live. They shake you to the soles of your feet. And then, they make you give back to the best of whatever ability you have.


Lesley McBain is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader with an abiding love for science fiction and fantasy.