An Interview with Chris Butler

Chris Butler lives in Brighton & Hove, UK. His novel Any Time Now was described by Paul Di Filippo as ‘a charming timeslip romance’ and his novella The Flight of the Ravens was shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Award. In addition to appearing in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nature, and Aurealis, six of his stories have appeared in Interzone. ‘Restoration’ is his debut in IZ Digital.

IZ Digital: How did ‘Restoration’ come about? Had you been thinking of the idea for a long time?

Chris Butler: I started writing quite quickly after I had the idea. It was one of those lightning-flash moments, the notion that software might be restored in a similar way to an old painting. That puts us two steps into the future, looking back on technology that hasn’t been invented yet.

Of course, software code doesn’t spontaneously unwrite itself, it’s the media that degrades. What if a society actually wanted that, as a way to control and limit software they considered dangerous? The challenge is to make all of this dramatic. I wrote a first draft in November 2020, but kept coming back to it through 2021. It was a challenge to get the story to work as well as I thought it could.

IZ Digital: When did you first encounter coding and computers?

Chris Butler: As a very young kid I had a Philips electronics kit, with which you could build simple circuits. By substituting components on a circuit board you could create different behaviour. Make lights flash at different speeds, that kind of thing. It wasn’t coding, but I understood that you built complexity from simple components to create the behaviour you wanted, which is exactly what software engineering is, and many other disciplines too.

At age 15, I took a computer studies course. It was the first year my school had offered it. At the point I went to university I thought I had a greater flair for Mathematics, but I ended up focused more on Computer Science by the final year.

IZ Digital: Which writers do you think do a good job of bringing code, and the way code works, to life in fiction?

Chris Butler: I’m struggling to think of any examples of coding in fiction. There’s HAL’s conflicted programming in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I guess that is a really important example of a mistake in the code being a critical plot point. There are lots of examples of Artificial Intelligences becoming sentient, or software becoming more ‘intelligent’ than humanity, but it tends to happen as a sort of inevitable consequence of increasing computer power, rather than any rigorous thinking about the software development that could enable it. More magic than science.

There were a lot of scientists in the stuff I was reading as a kid. In The Fantastic Four comics, for example. But software engineering? I’m not sure I ever saw that. You’d see hackers stealing data, but little about the creation of that data. Even in a film like WarGames, which is a good example of showing a software program in action, including some discussion about the software’s purpose and the ethics of that, there isn’t a lot of interest in how the software was written.

Interzone #118

Greg Egan has a story ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ (Interzone #118, April 1997) in which a character suffering from brain damage has to choose between two stark choices, a life in which he experiences no joy whatsoever, or one where anything and everything brings him blissful happiness. A third choice presents itself, allowing him to program himself to like or dislike things, more or less at random. I guess the consequences of programming are more interesting than the science of doing it. My own story ‘The Smart Minefield’ (Interzone #185, January 2003) features an absurdist take on Object Oriented Programming, if anyone is looking for that kind of thing!

Interzone #185

IZ Digital: Some writers have favourite pens or notebooks; others write on and with whatever is closest to hand. What technologies, if any, are essential for you when you write?

Chris Butler: I like to mix things up. You never know what new approach might prove beneficial on any particular day. If I need to churn out the words I will sit at my desk with my laptop, as it’s by far the most comfortable place to do the work. But then if that isn’t working, or I just need to get out of the house, I will go elsewhere and write by hand in a notebook. In which case, I just need a good biro and the notebook. Spiral bound so it stays open without any effort, and A4 is better than anything smaller.

When I’m editing or proofreading I will often send stuff to my kindle, which helps me to see the text with fresh eyes. If I think it’s completely finished I will get my phone to read it back to me. At which point I will probably discover it’s not completely finished after all.

IZ Digital: Which books, fiction or non-fiction, have left an impression on you recently?

Chris Butler: Threading the Labyrinth (Unsung Stories, 2020) by Tiffani Angus is wonderful. It’s about a haunted garden, or rather the people who work in it, spanning 400 years of history. The novel came out early in the pandemic when books were being delayed or cancelled all over the place and, although it did get very positive attention, it might still have passed some people by. It’s well worth seeking out.

I also loved the graphic novel Ruby Falls by Ann Nocenti and Flavia Biondi, a kind of small-town murder mystery noir, which seems to me to be attempting something new and different with the form, with great success.

IZ Digital: What would be your advice for other writers? What do you wish you’d figured out sooner?

Chris Butler: Newer writers are often too reluctant to submit their work to publishers. I believe you learn a lot by going through that submission process, even if you’re unsuccessful. You need to become as knowledgeable as you can about all aspects of publishing. That understanding will prove invaluable when bigger publishing opportunities come your way.

I would also say, welcome input from others if it’s available. But don’t expect anyone else to fix aspects of your work that are poor or not working. It’s lovely to work with an excellent copyeditor, for example, but ideally you should know how to do the job yourself. At the very least it makes their work that much easier.

For myself, I would say I’ve become somewhat obsessed with point-of-view in fiction. Who is telling the story, and what do they know or not know? This is a slightly different thing to what-is-happening, and if you have a firm grip on it then, in my opinion, the storytelling becomes much more powerful.

The other thing I might have learned sooner is the distinction between writing that has mass commercial appeal and writing that doesn’t. I’m not saying either is necessarily better or worse than the other. But your intent has to match your expectations, in terms of how the work might be received. It took me a while to understand that.

IZ Digital: What stories, or works-in-progress, are you most excited to see the light of day?

Chris Butler: I’m fortunate that most of the short fiction I’ve written has been published. Increasingly, I feel there is potential for me to write new stories connected to previous ones. Mosaic novels, if you like. The idea of that interests me a great deal. 

I have a novella that is good to go. And a novel that is more or less done, a kind of murder mystery where the murder happens in virtual reality. Alongside the technology in the story, I have characters that are telepathic. So you have a mix of near-future speculation sitting next to ideas that aren’t really scientifically plausible. Part of the appeal for me in writing anything is to mix elements that might not obviously sit together, and then watch the sparks fly.

I’m tempted to publish some of these stories myself, particularly the mosaic ideas, since I enjoy being involved in every aspect of book publication, from the choice of cover artist to the design of the interior. I’m competent in most areas, but equally I recognise there are people with greater publishing skills than mine. So we’ll see.

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