Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Interview: Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon WilliamsYou’d be hard-pressed to find a serious science fiction fan who doesn’t know the name Walter Jon Williams. Williams is the author of twenty-seven novels and three collections of short fiction, many of them classics in the field. His novel Hardwired (1986) was one of the seminal works of the cyberpunk movement, described by Roger Zelazny as “a tough, sleek juggernaut of a story, punctuated by strobe-light movements, coursing to the wail of jets and the twang of steel guitars.”

Charles Stross has called Walter “one of science fiction’s most versatile and elegant writers.” And indeed, since co-inventing cyberpunk, he has worked in almost every imaginable sub-genre of science fiction. He has also written for the screen and for television, and has worked in the gaming field, where he wrote for the alternate reality game Last Call Poker, and scripted the recent mega-hit Spore. His latest work is Deep State, a near-future thriller set in the world of alternate reality gaming.

Walter has been repeatedly nominated for both the Philip K. Dick and Hugo Awards, and won the Nebula Award for his 2001 novelette, “Daddy’s World,” and his 2004 novella “The Green Leopard Plague”.

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If I had to describe a “Walter Jon Williams Book” to someone who’d never read one, I’d say that I never know what your next book is going to be about, but I always know it will have big ideas and a rip-roaring storyline. More than anyone else in the genre, you seem to have a talent for following the big idea without losing sight of the need to tell a good story. How do you strike that balance?

I’d like to offer for your approval the highly unfashionable idea that good storytelling trumps everything else. Writers whose characters are made of purest silly putty and who can’t parse a simple English sentence regularly end up on the bestseller list because they know how to tell a story and keep readers turning pages.

There seems to be a school of thought that lovely writing is all that literature is about. I love to bask in beautiful writing, but I much prefer writing to be in aid of something, which is to say a good story. Likewise I fully appreciate well-drawn characters, but well-drawn characters with nothing to do but gaze at the wall and soliloquize to themselves are pretty darn dull.

Am I out of line to expect simply everything? Story, plot, characters, resolution? At any rate, that’s what I try to deliver.

I very often start with a character I want to write about, and so I’ll construct a story specifically around that character, to put the character under pressure and see what he or she is made of.

I tend not to write pure idea stories, which is not to say that I don’t employ ideas. The ideas tend to be in service to the story and characters—if the story is about the distance between the characters, I’ll employ an idea that somehow literalizes that separation. (Put one of them on another planet, say, or in some virtual space that the other can’t enter. Or alternately, jam them together in the same confined space and show how they still can’t talk to each other.)

I will try to have the idea and the characters mirror each other in some way. In my story “Surfacing,” the story was about a researcher trying to communicate with deep-sea creatures. He got involved with a woman who was intermittently possessed by an alien (a metaphor for mental illness, by the way). The various turns of the plot all involved the protagonist’s desperate attempts to communicate with the deep dwellers, the woman, and the alien, and each twist compounded his original problem. (I think it’s one of my best stories.)

(I should point out, by way of self-promotion, that my frustrations in reading fiction which was basically all right except that there was no plot and no pace, led me to found a writers’ workshop, Taos Toolbox, in which the art of plotting is covered thoroughly. This year I’ll be teaching with Nancy Kress and Jack Skillingstead. Applications are now being accepted, so if you’re interested, check out www.taostoolbox.com. End of commercial interruption.)

I’m amazed and awed by the sheer number of novels you’ve written over the years. What’s the secret to your productivity? And please don’t say good writing habits…we’d all much rather hear that you sold your soul to the devil at the crossroads!

Well, not actually the devil. Just the shabby little demon who lives behind the washing machine and eats my odd socks. And I didn’t sell my soul exactly, it was more of an options deal—if the economy remains stable, I shouldn’t have any trouble at all.

The sad truth is that I am dutiful. I don’t have a big daily word count, I don’t write a novel every month like some people I know, but I don’t let the grass grow under my keyboard, either. Unless I’m traveling or am otherwise fully occupied, I write every day, seven days per week. At my plodding dinosaur pace I manage to write a novel every year, plus a few pieces of short fiction.

You also write in an amazing range of genres. And several of your books are blends of multiple genres. I’ve heard you refer to this as “subgenre-busting.” How has subgenre-busting affected your career and your development as a writer?

“Subgenre-busting” was a term invented by the late Mike Ford, in a conversation where he pointed out that subgenre-busting was something that we both did. I hadn’t realized till then that this was what I was doing.

I never set out to bust genres. I just thought of myself as a kid in a candy store. There were these big display cases full of gooey treats labeled “thriller” and “dystopia” and “space opera” and “radical technology” and I couldn’t resist any of them. Then I started mashing them all together to see what they’d taste like.

I think the “busting” maybe comes from the fact that I did try to bring something new to the process on every attempt, which involved thinking hard about what it is that subgenres do, and why they do it. Which is why some of my stories seem to have mini-critiques built in, in which I challenge the assumptions of the subgenres I’m playing with.

All this was a lot of fun, though I wouldn’t recommend this career path for anyone starting today. Publishers, and a lot of readers, are too conservative to follow all that jumping around.

So why do you write science fiction? Does it give you a chance to ask the big questions? Can you say things through SF that you couldn’t as a mainstream writer?

I write SF because I was a horrible failure at writing everything else. I was told over and over again that my work was just too unconventional and too weird to see print. I’m pleased to report that, in the world of SF, they hardly ever tell you that.

That said, science fiction certainly encourages the asking of the big questions: Who are we, what makes us human, what is our purpose, what is our destiny. Even schlock pulp 1930s space opera at least assures us that there will be a tomorrow, and that people in that tomorrow will be doing exciting and worthwhile things. It’s not necessarily an assurance that you find anywhere else.

As for whether readers read in order to find these answers, I can say that I certainly did, when I was a young person. I believed firmly in everything that Robert Anson Heinlein told me, even when it was contradictory.

Now that I’m older, though, I have other sources of information.

Your stories “Lethe” and “The Green Leopard Plague” are among the most memorable—and moving—pieces of SF I’ve ever read. Both stories are set in a future that remains full of grief and loss even though death has been all but banished from human experience. And both stories suggest that even “in a future where everything goes right,” (your phrase) suffering will still be part of what makes us human. This is a very un-SF outlook. Yet it has given rise to some of your most lyrical and resonant writing. Where does that theme come from, and why do you think it keeps reappearing in your writing?

Perhaps it’s because I find death and suffering to be really, really sad, and sadder still because (at our current level of technology) they’re inescapable. Death and suffering are primary features of the human condition: They’re something we all share. When they no longer exist, we’ll know that posthumanity is upon us.

Also, from the point of view of the craftsman, I find it challenging to find something to write about in a world without war, poverty, and death. But just because those things are gone doesn’t mean that suffering doesn’t exist: There will still be people who are stupid or uncaring who will make you feel bad; you will still make horrible mistakes that will feel like the end of the world; and you’re going to love the wrong person. Almost guaranteed.

When those conditions are no more, you’ll know that humanity as we know it no longer exists.

These days, some of the best books that cross my desk as a reviewer are small press titles written by big name writers. Your own book, Implied Spaced, comes to mind, as do Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three and Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. I’ve heard other writers describe their reasons for working with small presses. Still, I’m curious to hear your take on it. Do you see more support for innovative SF at the independent publishers? Is it getting harder to sell groundbreaking SF to commercial publishers? And if so, then what does that mean about the future of the genre?

Traditional publishing in the US has been in crisis since the early 1990s, when traditional methods of paperback distribution were disrupted. The result in the US was that publishers became a lot more conservative in what they were buying. They were much more interested in retaining their traditional audience than in finding a new one. (This, despite the fact that the traditional audience was, and is, getting old and dying.)

US publishing put its money on a bet that no one in its audience will ever get cancer or heart disease or grow old. Ever.

Publishers in the UK, who were feeling the pinch for different reasons, seem to have chosen the opposite route—they bought a lot of ground-breaking new stuff by ground-breaking new writers. All the celebrated new literary movements in the field seem to be British—like the New Space Opera and the New Weird. From what I can see, even though there are plenty of American writers doing New Space Opera and even Newish Weird, this doesn’t count. You have to be British to wear the label.

Which is not to say that ground-breaking work isn’t being produced in the US, it’s just that it’s being published very cheaply, often by small presses. Small Beer, Night Shade, and Subterranean are incubators of cool stuff. They’re strutting around where major publishers fear to tread.

The problem is that people who write for small presses, or who manage to sell off-center work to major publishers for small money, aren’t making a living at their craft. They can hope for a breakout, hope they become the next Paolo Bacigalupi, but basically they have to be in it for the love. And love will only get you so far when it comes to making the mortgage and feeding the kids.

You said earlier that you often start a book with a character you want to write about and then put the character under pressure to see what he or she is made of. What books began this way? And what was it about those characters that made you want to build a book around them?

Books that started with the characters include Hardwired, Voice of the Whirlwind, Aristoi, and Days of Atonement. Those were stories and milieus that were built around the characters, and not the other way around.

Cowboy in Hardwired and Steward in Voice of the Whirlwind are two of my all-time favorite SF characters. Can you say a little more about the inspiration for them?

I’m not sure why I found these two in my head, but once they were there, I was compelled to write about them. Steward was possibly the first SF character I ever tried to write about. I wrote the first part of that novel around 1980, and didn’t finish it till five or six years later.

I realized, when I went through some old manuscripts years after Hardwired was published, that I’d used both Cowboy and Sarah in an unsold novel taking place in China in the 1920s. The characters had different names, but were otherwise very much the same. Apparently I was just very interested in those two personalities and the contrasts between them. I don’t recall the name of the cowboy character, but Sarah was a French anarchist named Hypsipyle Gobineau—reason enough for the proposal to be rejected, I’d imagine.

Cowboy started off as a laconic Westerner, with more than a touch of Tom Wolfe’s astronauts in his genetics. One of the things about modern-day cowboys is that they’re nostalgic for the disappearing old west, and maybe a little bit sad about the speed with which it’s receding into the past. But Cowboy believes in that past, and he’s trying to re-create it in his own personality. He’s consciously trying to re-invent himself as a mythological character.

With Steward I wanted to ring some changes on the idea of the combat veteran who returns home to find that he has changed too much to appreciate his homecoming. What makes Steward crazy—and I hope the reader understands that he is somewhat unbalanced—isn’t the horrors of war, but the fact that he can’t remember any of them. He is on a quest to discover his own personal hell.

What we have here are two people on very unusual quests. I’m very happy that people still find them compelling.

You seem to delight in catching characters at moments of existential crisis. A crisis in a Walter Jon Williams novel is never just a matter of physical survival. Sure, stuff blows up and there’s a high body count and great chase scenes. But, unlike more run-of-the-mill SF writers, you always put your characters’ self-respect up for grabs, too…usually by throwing them into situations where their moral compass goes haywire and they have to reconsider all their old beliefs about who the good guys are and which side they’re on.

Well, thank you. That’s what I try to do. I want to have the characters’ inner lives match their outward circumstances—if one is in crisis, so should the other be.

Insofar as my characters go, I’m not sure if they’re all trying to be heroes, or necessarily to do the right thing. They’re trying to remain themselves. They try to remain themselves even when their self-image turns out to be a construct designed for a world that no longer exists, or that turns out to be to one degree or another delusional.

Conflict in science fiction can operate on a number of levels. The Competent Man who features so prominently in a lot of SF is unusually lucky in that he always seems to be challenged within his realm of competence. If he’s a military officer, the task is usually to defeat the enemy, which is something he is trained to do. If he’s an engineer, he has to build the rocket or repair the rocket or solve some technical problem, and his whole job is solving technical problems.

That’s fine. Competent people do exist in the world, and it’s a pleasure watching them do their job.

What I’d like to do is take the Competent Man and put him in charge of, say, the Albuquerque Public Schools—which have been a horrid failure ever since I was in school, decades ago. Let the C.M. deal with the school board, the unions, with the decaying physical plants, the administrators, the bureaucracy, the budget, and the screaming parents. Tell him he’s not allowed to use the Legion of Killer Drones he built in his basement the week before. Then watch him go hideously, horribly, irrevocably insane.

See, that’s what I do to my characters. I chuck them into a situation in which their competence and their world-view is challenged. (I should point out to any prospective readers that only a minority of them actually go insane.)

The first generation cyberpunk writers—particularly you and William Gibson—created a new and controversial kind of female SF heroine. Molly in Neuromancer and Sarah in Hardwired are the two iconic examples of the breed. Both characters have clear roots in James Tiptree, Jr.’s tough-ass, loner, proto-cyberpunk heroines. But while feminist literary critics have generally celebrated Tiptree’s gender-bending women, they’ve been largely hostile to Molly and Sarah. What do you make of the amazingly polarized reactions to Sarah? And what did you actually have in mind when you wrote her?

I had no idea that there was any sort of controversy at all. I suppose I’m just pleased that people are still reading the book. I think people may be reacting to Sarah’s front rather than to the actual person I intended to write about.

Sarah is someone who has been abused and degraded, but is striving to achieve a position of respect in her particular milieu, which is the underworld. She blames herself for her failure to take care of her younger brother, who has been broken by the same treatment, and is trying to make up for that.

She does a lot of fronting. She gives a lot of attitude. It’s a way of demanding respect from people who aren’t otherwise inclined to give it.

If people only see the front, it’s exactly what she intends.

On the other hand, Dagmar Shaw, the protagonist of This is Not a Game and Deep State, is a very different kind of female lead. Any thoughts on that?

With Dagmar, I decided to write about someone who wasn’t an action hero. She’s a geek. She knows about as much self-defense as the average geek. So while she’s very smart and very successful, her reaction to the threat of violence is to run into the bathroom and lock the door. In Deep State, she actually manages some heroics, but her mental state is so deranged by that point in the narrative that it’s hard to tell whether it’s actual heroism or something more like dementia.

I’m not sure that my approach to characters has changed. I’m still cobbling their psyches together in the same way that I’ve always done. But my range has increased, partly—as you surmise—as an attempt not to repeat myself. Sarah, Sula, and Dagmar Shaw are all from some sort of abusive backgrounds, but they respond to their backgrounds in different ways. (And why, I now ask myself, do their names all start with S? I never noticed that till now. What is that about?)

Steward and Martinez are both types of military men, though not the same type. (There’s that S again.) Doran Falkner and Aristide are both retired philosopher kings. Aristide and Gabriel are both trying to fulfill some kind of ideal Confucian archetype.

I try not to repeat myself, but I do seem to echo. Particularly if the letter S is involved.

So was Dagmar’s character the inspiration for these books? Or was there something else that pulled you into the story?

Where these books started was with the Alternate Reality Game. I was a writer on the Last Call Poker ARG back in 2005, working for my friends Sean Stewart and Maureen McHugh, and there was something about this rich state-of-the-art multi-media speed-of-light Internet phenomenon that made me want to fix it in ink printed on dead trees.

ARGs are just so…freaking…cool. I had to write about them. The trouble was finding a dead-tree editor who had the slightest comprehension what I was trying to write about, and that took years, but fortunately Little, Brown brought somebody over from England, just for me. So thank you, Tim Holman.

As Maureen McHugh has convincingly written, ARGs are the art form created, virtually demanded, by the Internet. Multi-platform narratives delivered at the speed of light through every medium the Internet can deliver. It’s an evolving art form that I watch with great fascination.

In This Is Not a Game, the virtual world of Alternate Reality Gaming was superimposed on our actual reality, with fatal results. In Deep State, Dagmar is hired to use these techniques, along with social media forums, to deliberately undermine a hostile government—or, as she puts it, “to astroturf an entire country.”

Speaking of astroturfing, in Deep State you predicted in great detail and accuracy the Twitter Revolution currently going on in the Middle East. Except, of course, that the real world Twitter Revolution wasn’t secretly masterminded from Simi Valley…or was it?

The Tunisian revolution—and the revolution in Egypt that is ongoing as I type this, along with a revolution in Yemen that seems not to be getting a lot of air time—was probably not masterminded by any branch of the US government, for the simple reason that we seem to have been caught flatfooted in all instances.

Whether a quiet cabal in Simi Valley, or Bahrain, or Beirut, is behind events elsewhere is certainly possible—though if they do their jobs correctly, we’ll never know.

As I’ve been watching the news, I keep seeing pieces of my novel flashing into sight. Social media used to advance radical political objectives: Check. Alternative methods enabled when the government turns off the Internet: Check.

One aspect of the blueprint that wasn’t followed in Tunisia was the establishment of a virtual government—an ad hoc group that performs governmental functions, and can step into the role when the government actually falls. In Tunisia, the new government features a lot of the same old faces we saw in the old government.

In Egypt, as I write, it’s too early to say whether a shadow government along these lines is being formed. But certainly if Mubarak is overthrown only to be replaced by Mubarak cronies, the revolution will have failed.

So are we going to see more of Dagmar in future books?

Indeed, yes. I’ve recently completed the third Dagmar book. The current title is Mister Baby Head, which does seem to be experiencing a certain amount of resistance from the publisher. It may have another title by the time it appears, in about a year.

What’s the best question you’ve never been asked in an interview?

Remember that you asked for this. This is in fact a question I’ve never been asked:

Q: Is it true that you are a god in the kitchen as well as in the bedroom?

A: Why yes. Yes, I am.

And last but not least…where do I sign up for the job opening of “retired philosopher king?”

If you ever find out, please let me know.

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Chris Moriarty

Chris MoriartyChris Moriarty is the winner of the 2007 Philip K. Dick Award and the author of hard SF novels Spin State, Spin Control, and Ghost Spin (due out in 2011). Chris also reviews books for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, focusing primarily on hard SF and space opera. For more information please visit www.chrismoriartybooks.com.