Geomancer Supreme: John Kenny talks to Walter Jon Williams
Originally appeared in Albedo One #18 (1998)
John Kenny: Early novels like Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind are very much in the cyberpunk vein. However, over the course of time you’ve gone off in your own direction with regard to style and content. Was it a conscious commercial decision at the time to write in the cyberpunk mode, or did you make a conscious decision later on to move away from that arena?
Walter Jon Williams: Voice of the Whirlwind, which was first published in 1987, was begun around 1980. At that time, there was no such thing as cyberpunk. The word had not been coined, the writers had not much been published, the samizdat was not circulating, and the word was definitely not out.
Cyberpunk, it should not be forgotten, was a reaction. There was a kind of assumption in the SF of the 1970s that the future was a time in which most of our edges would be burnished off: we would all get to be homogenous, androgynous, and have lots of recreational, politically correct sex, without sexism, obsession, untoward lust, or perversity. We would essentially be OK. As in I’m-OK-you’re-OK.
This did not reflect my experience. I was living in a slum. I’d seen my share of drug deals. I’d taken my share of drugs. I’d seen my share of street crime. I’d never had politically correct sex in my life. I didn’t want to have my edges polished off. Edges were the things that made people interesting. And then Ronald Reagan got elected president, and presided over the most corrupt administration since Warren Harding. Rich, white, male, corporate gangsters were in charge of the country! It was glorious to be greedy and insensitive, and to trumpet your greed and insensitivity on national television. I understood these people in a truly stomach-twisting empathic fashion. Ed Meese, the attorney general, was a particular inspiration. Every time Ed Meese gave a speech, I would imagine a brand-new, horribly disgusting sexual act that I could write about. It hasn’t been the same since he left. So my writing tended to reflect the edgy street culture in which I was living, and was contrasted against the massive corporate and military oligarchy that was becoming our national structure. The future in Hardwired isn’t my future, it’s Ronald Regan’s future, it’s what he spent his political career striving to accomplish.
It was impossible to sell this stuff, I should point out. The culture was very resistant to anything that reflected these ideas. Knowing this, I pragmatically spent most of my time writing other things. Once the cultural dam broke – which coincided, pretty much, with the appointment of Ellen Datlow to Omni and Gardner Dozois to Asimov’s – I was able to sell all the stories that had been rejected over the years. I was able to write Hardwired, finish Voice, and begin work on other material.
So no, cyberpunk wasn’t a conscious decision, it was a release of something that was already there. Nor, as far as that goes, have I ‘left’ cyberpunk. That is to confuse the object with the wrapping it came in. Cyberpunk isn’t necessarily stories of street criminals dealing with bootleg high-tech – that’s the chrome that the message came wrapped in. When the chrome began to get a little dull with overuse, I found new, brighter, and different chrome.
The futures that I write about remain non-homogeneous. They are socially and ethnically diverse, they are saturated by big media and instantaneous information transfer, they are filled with technology that enhances edges and difference. I’m still writing about issues of power and responsibility. The wrapping is different, but the content has remained consistent.
JK: I guess I’m as guilty of labelling things as publishers. In fact, I think publishers are defining SF more narrowly these days. Maybe the SF of the 70’s was right about a homogenised world, at least in terms of the publishing world. So far, though, you’ve managed to produce work that is uniquely your own. Do you find it difficult to maintain that stance given the state of the publishing industry today?
WJW: I broke in at exactly the right time, what might in the future be considered, if not the Golden Age of SF, at least the Golden Age of SF Writers. From the late Seventies through the Eighties, a surprising number of people were able to make a decent living writing SF. The generation of writers that followed are not finding it nearly as easy.
This relates to the problems you mentioned of finding satisfying SF. It is the great paradox of the current time that, in a time when more talented writers are working in the genre than ever before, deploying more impressive literary skills in a period in which speculative science is growing by leaps and bounds, so much of the results seem uninspiring.
The current literary market favours the constant introduction of new writers, who can be bought and produced very cheaply. The writers are barely edited, because the amount of money spent on them does not justify the editor’s spending much time on their work; the books are hurried into production, given little or no promotion, and flung on the stands, like so much cannon fodder, to defend their rack space or die.
Unseasoned writers, with skills only partially developed, need good and skilful editing to bring out the best in their work, and they need to be allowed to develop from work to work. They’re not being given either opportunity. The result is going to be a generation of writers strewn across the publishing landscape like British soldiers on the barbed wire of the Somme.
JK: I think one of the reasons why so much SF these days is uninspiring is that there is almost too much communication between scientists and SF writers. Most scientific research, at the moment, is for large multinational companies that want a fast return. And while a lot of that research is fascinating, there are large areas of potential research’ that have had moratoriums slapped on them. As a result, a lot of current SF is myopic in perspective. Few writers seem to be standing back and taking a wider view of things. What do you think?
WJW: The problem you describe isn’t unique to the Nineties. SF writers have always jumped on the latest scientific headlines. Why do Asimov‘s robots have positronic brains? Because the positron had just been discovered, and positron was that year’s hot new scientific buzzword. If Asimov were writing now, his robots would probably have nanotech brains. In six to eight months, I expect to see a lot of magnetar stories in the magazines.
I don’t mind close ties between SF writers and the scientific community – the closer the better, as far as I’m concerned – but it would be nice to see some vision and perspective along with all the new buzzwords. Perspective will come in time, as SF writers engage in their usual lengthy dialogue about what a new technology really means. Vision is rare at any time.
What bothers me rather more are the writers who have no technical knowledge at all, or who seem to get all their science from Star Wars films.
JK: What struck me about the premise of Metropolitan and its sequel City on Fire was how broad-based it was. The idea that magic builds up in buildings, and can be made to build up quicker and in more concentrated form by determining the positioning of buildings, and that it can be utilised in the same manner as electricity is something that can have so many applications. And you spent a decent bit of time showing us just how completely a society would be affected by something like this (what science fiction is supposed to do, although I suppose the premise makes these books technically fantasy). What sparked off this idea and how did you go about developing it?
WJW: The Metropolitan sequence originated from a number of different ideas that all came together at once. One idea came from the idle observation that I was really bored by contemporary fantasy, and that I shouldn’t be. I remembered that I was once excited by fantasy, decades ago, but that I couldn’t work up any degree of enthusiasm for the genre any longer. And I thought this was a dreadful shame, because fantasy really ought to be a literature of greater possibility than any other.
Having made this observation, I decided, in my utter arrogance, that the genre was broke, and that I knew how to fix it. What my experience with what-for-the-sake-of-argument-we-shall-call-cyberpunk had shown me was that a whole tired literary form could be reinvented simply by thinking about it harder than anyone else. If you can look past the externals – the ‘chrome’, the elves, spaceships, and dragons – to what really makes the genre work you can alter the structure of the literature in fundamental ways. You can find alternate structures that do the same job as the original structures, but which will resonate differently with the whole architecture, and which will – if you work all this out with sufficient rigor – imply their own chrome, as it were, change the externals of the genre by imposing a different internal logic.
This architectural metaphor ended up in the book, of course, as the science of geomancy. I decided that, while it might be possible to say something new and interesting about elves, dragons, or the middle ages, that I had nothing new to say about any of these subjects. Because I’m fairly good at describing cityscapes and tech, I decided that there would be cities and tech in the work. Which led to further thoughts on the subgenre called ‘urban fantasy’, which led me to the conclusion that the subgenre is misnamed. In urban fantasy the settings may be urban, but the fantasy elements are not – they are in fact very traditional elements, elves, dragons, and orcs. While you can get a kind of subversive literary thrill from elves playing rock music in dingy basement nightclubs, or from orcs zooming down Fifth Avenue on motorcycles, there’s a limit to how far you can carry this without descending into self-parody.
So I decided that the fantasy elements would be derived from the urban setting itself, that the power would come from subways, and power conduits, and sewer systems, and skyscrapers. And that such non-human creatures as might exist in the story would be derived from the urban environment itself, not from the forests of the Dark Ages.
The rest of it was just building all the external details – the chrome – from these premises. I just changed a few of the architectural fundamentals of the genre, and built everything from there. But so no one would mistake my purpose, I attached all the chrome to a traditional fantasy story, that of an apprentice mage engaged in a perilous relationship with her master. Unfortunately, everybody mistook my purpose. I am perhaps the only person in the world who believes these books are fantasy.
George R.R. Martin tells me that I’ve got the ‘furniture’ – what I call ‘chrome’ – all wrong. There are computers and flying cars in my book, and that makes it science fiction. There are dragons in Anne McCaffrey‘s book, so that makes it fantasy whether or not it’s set on a science fictional planet called Pern.
Which may be true. But if George is right both fantasy and SF are dead. If both genres are only about the externals, about shuffling the same furniture around the same old building, then both genres should be buried at the crossroads with stakes through their hearts, and we should all go on to find something more profitable to do with our time.
JK: Who would you offer as writers who are producing work that indicates a genre that is alive and well? And are they writers you read, admire or who influence your work? And if not, who does?
WJW: Greg Egan‘s stuff works for me about fifty percent of the time, and when it works, it’s dazzling. When it doesn’t work, it’s because it’s about artificial people talking about artificial things in an artificial place, which has never been one of those things I’ve been able to care about. Patricia Anthony is very, very fine. God’s Fires was a terrific piece of work. Bruce Sterling is never less than interesting. He always manages to wrap his stones around some piece of the zeitgeist that the rest of us have overlooked. I always enjoy Tim Powers. There’s a moment in every Powers novel when the story runs completely out of the author’s control and begins to stomp all over the scenario like Godzilla running amuck through Tokyo. I always look forward to those moments. Among the newer writers, Sean Stewart and Wil McCarthy have each produced some first-rate fiction. As for the writers who influence my work, they’re pretty much the same people who influenced me twenty years ago. Delany and Zelazny in the SF field, craggy eccentrics like Mervyn Peake and E.R. Eddison in fantasy, and Conrad and Nabokov elsewhere.
JK: What are you working on at the moment, or are you reluctant to discuss work in progress?
WJW: I have spent the last two years writing a super epic mega-disaster novel called The Rift, a near-future work based on a series of catastrophic earthquakes along the New Madrid fault system in the central U.S. The last big earthquake in that region, in 1811, was the largest earthquake in three thousand years. Since 1811, millions of people have moved into the region and built a number of major cities in the fault area, none of them earthquake-proof.
HarperCollins seem to think this book will be huge, and therefore will probably market the book as a thunderous colossal mainstream bestseller – which should be a change, Lord knows. I will probably be compelled to change my name to ‘Walter J. Williams’, thereby bifurcating myself along the example set by messrs. lain Banks and lain M. Banks.
Walter Jon Williams will continue to write SF, however. There will be another Metropolitan book, though it will be a year or two before I get to write it.
JK: Considering the nature of the publishing industry at the moment, comments made recently by Norman Spinrad (and, incidentally in our own Severian column) on the possibility of science fiction entering a cul de sac, and previous declarations that SF was dead, do you think the genre has a future?
WJW: I have said similar things myself, though I don’t think it’s as hopeless as all that. This issue came home to me a few years ago, when I watched a videotape of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s wonderful science fiction, and unlike most Hollywood SF is real science fiction. It extrapolates from the mid-Sixties along what we might call Classic SF lines a la Willy Ley: we proceed into space from a wheel-shaped space station; there is a base on the moon with hundreds if not thousands of inhabitants; the Cold War is still going strong; giant mainframe supercomputers exist with which we can interact as if they were human.
It was all extremely plausible, back in 1965, and it was very well worked-out; but none of it came true. There are no moon bases, and in fact we went to the moon but stopped; the Cold War fizzled; computers are small and omnipresent, but so user-unfriendly that only alienated 14-year-old obsessives can master their use; and though we have a space station, it’s Russian, deteriorating rapidly, and apparently manned by the Three Stooges.
The classic SF vision of the future, which generations of talented writers laboured to produce, did not come about. Its founders’ documents, which were viewed as blueprints for the future, have now become interesting sociological studies in how members of a smallish subculture viewed their universe.
The result has been something of an unacknowledged moral and spiritual crisis in SF, something akin to what might happen in a religious sect firmly convinced that the world would end in 1988, and only now coming to grips with the fact that somewhere along the way they must have missed something important. Some hold to the view, “we were right about everything but the date,” and go on writing the same sort of thing they’d always done; some are going back, in a spirit of nostalgia, to re-analyze the documents left by the sect’s founders – Stephen Baxter’s books reinventing Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and the Apollo program come to mind – but only a minority, it would seem, are striving to come to grips with our own present and what it implies.
The present we now live in is something much more complex, rich, and interesting than the present envisioned by most past SF. The future that our present implies is also much more challenging to write about. Near-instant communication, bandwidth saturation, gene tech, nano tech, computer tech, multicultural environments, virtual environments – that and the hardware, too!
It can be done, because some people are doing it. And it’s been done so well, in at least a few places, that some SF stories have become the bibles of whole new technological movements. Neuromancer inspired a whole generation of techies to build Gibson‘s cyberspace – though of course the people Gibson inspired with his work ignored, or perhaps did not perceive, Gibson’s ambiguous feelings about the things he created. Snow Crash has become another such bible, used for inspiration by another generation of irony-deprived techfiends.
I guess my point is that SF isn’t dead, but it has to change in order to cope with an altered present. As devotees of a literature that promotes and worships change, we shouldn’t think this is a bad thing.