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A Cascade Of Invention
Walter Jon Williams
interviewed by Christopher Geary

Walter Jon Williams lives in New Mexico, and is the author of over 20 novels. He collects nominations for Nebula, Hugo and Philip K. Dick awards, but has no actual awards yet. Williams' first SF novel, Ambassador Of Progress was published in 1984 and, although his writing is sometimes influenced by Roger Zelazny's work, Williams' genre books are distinctive for their skilful mixing traditional science fiction and contemporary fantasy tropes.
Walter Jon Williams
   Angel Station (1989) is a mix of cyberpunk, space opera, and first contact intrigues with elements of a political thriller. Aristoi (1992) depicts the fall of a stagnant utopia and features the aptly named VR realm "Oneirochronon." Metropolitan (1995), with its description of magic as a natural resource called "Plasm" - metered and charged for by a civic authority - may be read as either urban fantasy or alternative-world SF. Days Of Atonement (1991) features zombies but is set in the near-future. The Rift (1999) is a disaster novel. Facets (1990) is a fine collection of short fiction that's full of energy and ideas.
   Williams' The Millennium Party (2002) is published online at Infinite Matrix. This interview was conducted via email in January 2003.

Your recent novel, The Praxis is being promoted as the first book in a series (a trilogy?). Was it conceived as such, or did you find the story outgrowing single-novel length as you wrote it?

Unlike the involuntary series that began with Metropolitan, the series beginning with Praxis was planned that way. It's really one story in three volumes, though I try to bring each to a resolution that won't leave the reader completely frustrated.

The Praxis features highly selective developments on futuristic technologies (as decreed by ruling aliens, the Shaa), where you have virtual reality and star-gate travel but no genetic engineering or cybernetics. Why did you choose to impose these limitations on the Empire, and was it a conscious decision to break away from the bio-tech and gadgets of your earlier cyberpunk styled books?

It wasn't a matter of breaking away from one thing, or moving toward another. The decisions about which technologies to include were strictly pragmatic. I got rid of anything that would get in the way of the drama. While the Shaa Empire does have advanced cybernetics, they don't have AI, and that's for the simple novelistic reason that advanced AI would make all the action scenes boring - it's not very exciting if all the tactical decisions are made by machines, thinking a zillion times faster than human beings and covering all the options. Nobody's going to care if a tactical computer gets blown up. I wanted human beings or other sentients somewhere in the loop, grunting and sweating and subjected to high-gee forces and making mistakes.

Many fans and critics agree that cyberpunk revitalised SF during the 1980s, but do you think it still has much relevance today?

I think cyberpunk evolved. People had the idea at one point that cyberpunk was all about computers and dystopia, but I think cyberpunk was a series of strategies for thinking about the future. It showed a media-saturated, post-capitalist future in which technological change surged through every level of society at breakneck speed, and in its own way. Since that's the future we actually got, I can't see that cyberpunk could possibly be any less relevant than it is now.

Your 1989 novella Solip:System is back in print from NESFA Press as part of the new collection Frankensteins And Foreign Devils. How important is Solip:System as the link between your novels Hardwired and Voice Of The Whirlwind?

Unfortunately this question takes us into the long and depressingly mundane story of how Voice Of The Whirlwind got to be a sequel to Hardwired in the first place. It was originally a standalone novel, but when I turned it in, my editor asked me if I could make it a sequel.
   "Why?" I asked.
   "Sequels sell better," she said.
   This seemed a morally justifiable reason for making a few cosmetic changes and turning the novel into a sequel, but it never explained how one future evolved into the other. Once I began wondering how that change had occurred, Solip:System came along.
   So to return, after this long digression, to your question, Solip:System is a valuable resource if you actually care how the world of Hardwired evolved into the world of Voice Of The Whirlwind. And if you don't care, you should read the story anyway, because I think it's pretty spiff.

Your cyberpunk work is characterised by a wild rush of ideas that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the plot. Do you ever worry about going over-the-top with this degree of inventiveness?

Science fiction readers probably have the gene for novelty, and seem to enjoy a cascade of invention as much as a writer enjoys providing one. At any rate, nobody's ever told me that my problem is that I have too many ideas.

Space opera has appropriated seafaring terms for star-faring adventures, even though most astronauts came from the Air Force, not the Navy. As a writer of nautical fiction with a knack for language, why do you think this curious twist happened in SF, and why are Naval terms still in use today?

The Air Force model will work for single-seat fighters, or small bomber or transport crews, but once you've got an honest-to-God space ship, with a crew of 300 or 1,000 then the mind naturally starts looking for the real-life model for that sort of thing, and that's the Navy. Plus the Navy has the whole polished-teak-and-gleaming-brass tradition going for it, with the wailing bosun's pipes and the bells and the rum tots, and they have a nifty vocabulary for the parts of the ship that, when deployed by an author, make it seem like he knows what he's talking about.
   I should point out that I tried rigorously to exclude as much of this as I could from The Praxis, because I could think of no reason why a race of alien conquerors should embody the traditions of the Royal Navy. But the naval idiom is so pervasive that much of it crept it despite my best efforts.

The Praxis features very exciting space battles between sub-light speed warships using guided missiles. How do you plan these in-system battles? Does the maths and physics involved (in acceleration and deceleration calculations) ever cause story problems?

I have maps. I have charts showing how long it takes to accelerate from x to y. I have pages of scrawled calculations. I have a Distinguished Panel of Experts I can call on, friends who do science much better than I ever could.
   And yes, despite all that, the damn physics keeps getting in the way of the story. Partway through The Praxis, I began to see why practically everyone who writes this sort of thing invokes something called an Inertialess Drive. I spent many hours dreaming of the Inertialess Drive. After a time the Inertialess Drive began to seem very erotic. I yearned with all my being for an Inertialess Drive.
   But then I went back to the damn physics, and did what it told me.

Your story, Elegy For Angels And Dogs was a sequel to Roger Zelazny's The Graveyard Heart, and your novels Knight Moves and Aristoi have been described as 'Zelaznyesque'. What drew you to Zelazny's work, and what are your other literary influences?

I grew up reading the 1960s' New Wave, Zelazny and Delany and le Guin and Moorcock and Russ, and Disch. I think Roger stood out because of his unique voice, which was colloquial and American and understated he was a poet who knew when not to use words. No doubt I absorbed a good deal of this from the reading. I didn't intend my work to be specifically Zelaznyesque, but I doubt I'll ever grow tired of the compliment.

Your book Metropolitan introduced us to an apparently rational explanation for magic, exploiting that common fantasy idea in science fictional terms with great conviction and plausibility. Do you find the genre labels offensive, especially as they are applied to your books?

Genre labels are useful only insofar as they help you find an audience. In all other cases they are not so much offensive as oppressive, a constant admonition to colour strictly within the lines.
   Metropolitan and City On Fire were an effort to bust a genre apart and rewire it in a different way. So far as I can see, most people read it as SF and didn't notice.

How important are the themes of horror (real or imaginary) to SF and fantasy?

Genre horror doesn't work for me. I'm not afraid of werewolves or vampires or haunted hotels, I'm afraid of what real human beings to do other real human beings. Since SF absorbs every other literary influence, it's absorbed horror, too, and has produced some absolutely chilling stories over the years, from Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think through George R.R. Martin's Sandkings. When I've set out to do scary stories, like Erogenoscape or Solip:System, they were stories that creeped me out writing them, and they all fit into the "human beings on other human beings" categories.
   Perhaps horror isn't one of the major threads within SF, since most SF isn't remotely horrific, but it's been there all along.

There's a notable measure of wry humour in your work, particularly with regard to some of your female characters. Do you find these often-hilarious asides easy to write?

All too easy, I'm afraid. I have to repress my tendency to quip lest all my dialogue turn into a series of one-liners.

You have contributed to the shared world, mosaic novels of Wild Cards. Did you enjoy that sort of collaboration and would you try it again?

I find it a pleasure and a welcome change of pace to collaborate with my friends. If you can find collaborators whose strengths compliment your own, the result can be more than the sum of its authors. The amount of time necessary to make such a collaboration work tends to be a limiting factor, however.
   I'm about to embark on a novel-length collaboration with three other writers. Frankly it's an insane thing to do, particularly since no one of us is in charge and we have to grope our way toward consensus on every item, but we all seem to be having a wonderful time.

You grew up in the UK. Are you a fan of British SF, and do you have any favourite non-American genre authors?

Actually I grew up in the States. I was pretty much grown-up by the time I attended school in Britain - or as grown-up as I'll ever get. (There's that regrettable one-liner tendency again.)
   One-liners aside, I grew up reading British SF, mostly the New Worlds' crowd. Moorcock, Roberts, Aldiss, Ballard, Brunner, and people like Sladek and Disch, who if not technically British certainly seemed to be British at the time. I still read all these writers. New writers like Ken MacLeod and China Miéville are terrific discoveries.

As an SF author, how important is it to maintain an online presence, with your own website and downloadable e-stories available to buy? Is the Internet primarily for publicity, or (for SF writers, especially) is there any element of credibility involved?

The credibility is in the novels, or it isn't, and that's where my emphasis lies. The Internet offers an interesting combination of advertising and community, and by participating in the community you can become an advertisement for yourself.
   Unfortunately the time available for self-advertisement is lacking. I don't know how it's possible both to write novels and to spend hours online posting lengthy essays and participating in chat, and if anyone has the secret, I wish they'd let me know.

What can you tell us about your Star Wars novel, Destiny's Way? Did you find working in this established milieu impeded your creativity, especially with regard to continuity?

I knew going into the project that it was going to be a collaborative effort, and that I wasn't going to have the last word. This wasn't a totally strange situation for me, since I've also done movies and TV, and these are both media in which the writer has very little say in how things turn out.
   I have no problem with this situation if the rules are clear going in, and if the check clears.
   All mercenary motives to the side, however, I wouldn't have done the project if I didn't think I had something to contribute.

Have you seen the recent Star Wars movie prequels, and what did you think of them?

Many big explosions, ne?

Do you have any advice for new writers?

Network. Pay attention to what editors tell you. And read everything. An SF author who reads only SF will have little new to contribute, but someone with a broader experience will bring more to the table.

Books by Walter Jon Williams [selected titles, A-Z]:
Ambassador Of Progress (1984),  Angel Station (1989),  Aristoi (1992),  City On Fire (1997),  The Crown Jewels (1987),  Days Of Atonement (1991),  Destiny's Way (2002),  Elegy For Angels And Dogs (1991),  Facets (collection, 1990),  Hardwired (1986),  House Of Shards (1988),  Knight Moves (1985),  Metropolitan (1995),  The Praxis (2002),  The Rift (1999),  Rock Of Ages (1995),  Solip:System (chapbook, 1989),  Voice Of The Whirlwind (1987).                           Visit the author's website.
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