Skip to content. | Skip to navigation


I've made my first novel, Ventus, available as a free download, as well as excerpts from two of the Virga books.  I am looking forward to putting up a number of short stories in the near future.

Complete novel:  Ventus


To celebrate the August, 2007 publication of Queen of Candesce, I decided to re-release my first novel as an eBook. You can download it from this page. Ventus was first published by Tor Books in 2000, and and you can still buy it; to everyone who would just like to sample my work, I hope you enjoy this version.

I've released this book under a Creative Commons license, which means you can read it and distribute it freely, but not make derivative works or sell it.

Book Excerpts:  Sun of Suns and Pirate Sun

I've made large tracts of these two Virga books available.  If you want to find out what the Virga universe is all about, you can check it out here:

Major Foresight Project:  Crisis in Zefra

In spring 2005, the Directorate of Land Strategic Concepts of National Defense Canada (that is to say, the army) hired me to write a dramatized future military scenario.  The book-length work, Crisis in Zefra, was set in a mythical African city-state, about 20 years in the future, and concerned a group of Canadian peacekeepers who are trying to ready the city for its first democratic vote while fighting an insurgency.  The project ran to 27,000 words and was published by the army as a bound paperback book.

If you'd like to read Crisis in Zefra, you can download it in PDF form.

Personal tools

Wicked (1)

Filed Under:

The Stross Entries #5 (originally posted July 31st, 2011)

I sense a theme.

I've been reading a lot of blog posts, and comments to same, that highlight the seemingly intractable quality of current world problems. This recent post by Steelweaver is a great example. So are a lot of the comments to my previous"Beyond Prediction" post. Steelweaver in particular hits the nail on the head with the idea that "people no longer inhabit a single reality. ... Collectively, there is no longer a single cultural arena of dialogue." This is definitely the case when you examine the cultural and political dialogues arising around the Greek and U.S. debt crises, or global warming.

--And this is a brilliantly insightful idea, but it's a little bit sad, too, because it seems as though a lot of people are just discovering this problem, and yet it's been well known for decades.

I spend a lot of time with people who have a very particular way of looking at problems: define it, decompose and scope it, solve it, implement it. A lot of engineers, scientists, and programmers of my acquaintance take this approach. And they sometimes get very, very angry when faced with real-world problems thatcan't be approached this way; in fact, I keep ending up in circular arguments with technologists who insist on using this approach on, eg., climate change. Or the debt crises. (Encountered angry trolls in any comment threads lately? Do they tend to make sweeping generalizations about the nature of problems, their causes, and their solutions? Hmmm...)

But often, in the human sphere, there are what're called "wicked" problems. In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber defined a wicked problem this way:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
  10. The social planner who tackles a wicked problem has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
Climate change is a great example of a wicked problem: Quick, somebody tell me what the acceptable maximum amount of CO2 in the atmosphere should be, in parts-per-milion! Provide me with the answer to that question, and you win a pony! (And now, dear trolls, fair warning: if you argue over climate change at all in the comment thread, I will mod you off the island. 'Cause it's not what this post is about, it's just an example.)

It is not the case that wicked problems are simply problems that have been incompletely analyzed; there really is no 'right' formulation and no 'right' answer. These are problems that cannot be engineered. The anger of many of my acquaintances seems to stem from the erroneous perception that they could be solved this way, if only those damned republicans/democrats/liberals/conservatives/tree-huggers/industrialists/true believers/denialists didn't keep muddying the waters. Because many people aren't aware that there are wicked problems, they experience the failure to solve major complex world issues as the failure of some particular group to understand 'the real situation.' But they're not going to do that, and granted that they won't, the solutions you work on have to incorporate their points-of-view as well as your own, or they're non-starters. This, of course, is mind-bogglingly difficult.

Our most important problems are wicked problems. Luckily, social scientists have been studying this sort of mess since, well, since 1970. Techniques exist that will allow moderately-sized groups with widely divergent agendas and points of view to work together to solve highly complex problems. (The U.S. Congress apparently doesn't use them.) Structured Dialogic Design is one such methodology. Scaling SDD sessions to groups larger than 50 to 70 people at a time has proven difficult--but the fact that it and similar methods exist at all should give us hope.

Here's my take on things: our biggest challenges are no longer technological. They are issues of communication, coordination, and cooperation. These are, for the most part, well-studied problems that are not wicked. The methodologies that solve them need to be scaled up from the small-group settings where they currently work well, and injected into the DNA of our society--or, at least, built into our default modes of using the internet. They then can be used to tackle the wicked problems.

What we need, in other words, is a Facebook for collaborative decision-making: an app built to compensate for the most egregious cognitive biases and behaviours that derail us when we get together to think in groups. Decision-support, stakeholder analysis, bias filtering, collaborative scratch-pads and, most importantly, mechanisms to extract commitments to action from those that use these tools. I have zero interest in yet another open-source copy of a commercial application, and zero interest in yet another Tetris game for Android. But a Wikipedia's worth of work on this stuff could transform the world.

If Google+ can attract millions of people in just a few days to an app that does little more than let them drag pictures of people into circles, surely we can build a simple app that everybody can use that does even one useful thing, like, say, mitigate theErroneous Priorities Effect when you're attending a meeting.

Next, in Wicked (2): What a Wikipedia's worth of work would get us.

Addendum:  You can find the original comment thread for this entry here.  

Document Actions

A late comment

Posted by Tim Morgan at Sep 13, 2011 12:53 PM
Karl, I just got around to reading this so forgive the late response. While reading this it occurred to me that you can use the concept of Wicked Problems as a shorthand for briefly describing future capabilities. The two that leaped into my head:

1. You have a Singularity when an intelligent entity can easily "solve" a Wicked Problem
2. You have a Rewilding when a Wicked Problem "solves" itself

Obviously those are imprecise characterizations, but I think it helps pinpoint the fundamental difference between Singularities and your Rewilding concept.


wicked rewilding

Posted by Karl Schroeder at Oct 18, 2011 07:07 PM
I like this schema--though, you're right, it's imprecise. Nonetheless, a tendency to rigidly separate the problem-solving system from the system being 'solved', and a tendency to imagine an effective agency that can 'reach into' nature to manipulate and fix it, is one of the characteristics of the Singularity idea, and wicked problems challenge that potential. Good thoughts.
Log in

Forgot your password?
New user?
About Me

I'm a member of the Association of Professional Futurists with my own consultancy, and am also currently Chair of the Canadian node of the Millennium Project, a private/public foresight consultancy active in 50 nations. As well, I am an award-winning author with ten published novels translated into as many languages. I write, give talks, and conduct workshops on numerous topics related to the future, including:

  • Future of government
  • Bitcoin and digital currencies
  • The workplace in 2030
  • The Internet of Things
  • Augmented cognition

For a complete bio, go here. To contact me, email karl at kschroeder dot com

Example: The Future of Governance

I use Science Fiction to communicate the results of actual futures studies. Some of my recent research relates to how we'll govern ourselves in the future. I've worked with a few clients on this and published some results.

Here are two examples--and you can read the first for free:

The Canadian army commissioned me to write Crisis in Urlia, a fictionalized study of the future of military command-and-control. You can download a PDF of the book here:

Crisis in Urlia

For the "optimistic Science Fiction" anthology Hieroglyph, I wrote "Degrees of Freedom," set in Haida Gwaii. "Degrees of Freedom" is about an attempt to develop new governing systems by Canadian First Nations people.

I'm continuing to research this exciting area and would be happy to share my findings.


Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter
    Mailing List

    Stay informed about new book and story releases, public appearances, readings etc.

    * indicates required
    Coming on June 18, 2019

    "Science fiction at its best."

    --Kim Stanley Robinson

    A Young Adult Scifi Saga

    "Lean and hugely engaging ... and highly recommended."

    --Open Letters Monthly, an Arts and Literature Review

    Sheer Fun: The Virga Series

    (Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce are combined in Cities of the Air)

     β€œAn adventure-filled tale of sword fights and naval battles... the real fun of this coming-of-age tale includes a pirate treasure hunt and grand scale naval invasions set in the cold, far reaches of space. ”
    β€”Kirkus Reviews (listed in top 10 SF novels for 2006)

    "With Queen of Candesce, [Schroeder] has achieved a clockwork balance of deftly paced adventure and humour, set against an intriguing and unique vision of humanity's far future.
    --The Globe and Mail

    "[Pirate Sun] is fun in the same league as the best SF ever has had to offer, fully as exciting and full of cool science as work from the golden age of SF, but with characterization and plot layering equal to the scrutiny of critical appraisers."

    "...A rollicking good read... fun, bookish, and full of insane air battles"

    "A grand flying-pirate-ship-chases-and-escapes-and-meetings-with-monsters adventure, and it ends not with a debate or a seminar but with a gigantic zero-gee battle around Candesce, a climactic unmasking and showdown, just desserts, and other satisfying stuff."