Jim Freund: Welcome back to Omni Visions. Our guest tonight will be sf writer Walter Jon Williams. What follows is John Clute's article on him from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (available in paperback and CD-ROM):
Walter Jon Williams (1953- ) US writer whose first works were nautical tales as by Jon Williams, beginning with The Privateer (1981). He began to publish sf with Ambassador of Progress (1984), a [...] novel in which a female agent whose mission is to revive civilization makes contact with an abandoned, semi-feudal colony planet. Knight Moves (1985) describes the attempts of an immensely powerful immortal and his old friends and enemies to discover a technique of matter transmission and to repopulate an almost abandoned Earth with fantastic creatures taken from mythology, in a style reminiscent of the early Roger Zelazny.
But it was with the appearance of cyberpunk that WJW seemed to have found his true voice as a writer. In the Hardwired sequence -- Hardwired (1986), stories like "Video Star" (1986), Voice of the Whirlwind (1987) and Solip:system (1989 chap) -- he displayed a fascination with intensely detailed surfaces, biologically invasive gadgetry, and the effects of powerful corporations and rapidly changing technology on (romanticized) social outsiders. The first tale, in which underdogs of a repressed Earth rebel against dominant orbital corporations -- proved sufficiently popular to spawn a role-playing game based on it, despite the unlikelihood of much of its plot; the game is presented in Hardwired: The Sourcebook (1989 chap). In the rather better second tale the clone of an alienated one-time corporate soldier, brought to life on the original's death, hunts for clues to that first demise in a narrative richly informed by Zen and speculations on the nature of identity.
The Crown Jewels sequence -- The Crown Jewels (1987) and House of Shards (1988) -- comprises two "divertimenti" describing the adventures of a Raffles-like burglar in a cod-Oriental future human culture heavily influenced by aliens to whom style is sacred. But WJW retained a cyberpunk outlook for his next major novel, Angel Station (1989), in which family groups of interstellar traders both fight to survive as major corporations squeeze down their markets, and also betray each other for the chance to deal with a newly discovered alien race. Facets (coll 1990) assembles most of his short fiction.
In the tautly told Days of Atonement (1991) WJW moved to a near-future USA where a macho small-town sheriff struggles with the physics needed to understand an apparent outbreak of bodily resurrections at the nearby Advanced Technological Laboratories. Aristoi (1992) goes in the other direction, into a far-future venue once again evocative of Zelazny. Wall, Stone, Craft (1993 chap) ingeniously posits an alternate world in which Lord Byron, unhampered by a club foot, becomes one of the heroes of Waterloo, and subsequently interacts with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, here powerfully imagined, so that Frankenstein (1818), and all of sf to come, is inevitably created. Ingenious and energetic and knowing, WJW seems very much at home with the mature genre SF of the 1980s and 1990s.
Other works: Elegy for Angels and Dogs (1990 dos), a sequel to Zelazny's The Graveyard Heart (1964 Fantastic; 1990 chap dos), with which it is bound sequentially (> DOS-A-DOS); Dinosaurs (1991 chap).
Since the publication of that critical biography WJW has come out with his critically acclaimed "Metropolitan" and its sequel, "City on Fire". Welcome!
Walter Jon Williams: Glad to be here.
JF: I suspect that "City on Fire" is not the end of that series . . . Are you planning (or have you written) more?
WJW: The METROPOLITAN series started out as a single volume. But when I was finished with the first, I realized the story wasn't over. About halfway through CITY ON FIRE, I realized there would be a third volume. I'm going to take a break from the series for a while, though, and let the batteries recharge. I've got another book or two I want to write first.
The third book WILL contain a lot of the information that people have been nagging me about, such as who (or what) is on the other side of the Shield, why the Shield was built, and why it's still there.
JF: Your work has always struck me as being very serious on the surface, with you grinning underneath, and another layer of seriousness another level down. (Except for THE CROWN JEWELS, which was a relative romp.) Do you see any validity to that perception?
WJW: Well, I AM enjoying myself, and the books are filled with jokes that probably only I will ever see as funny. But much of the humor in the book has to do with irony or cultural contrasts, which the irony-impaired may not quite notice. Some people have told me that my "serious" books are humorless, for instance. But then my humorous books have a serious comment or two, as well.
A lot of the subtext of the CROWN JEWELS series has to do with class assumptions, which is a subject I take very seriously elsewhere.
JF: I think those serious books are humorless as well--on the surface, but I always thought I that (as in some film noir) there was fun in the styling of the straight-faced tale.
WJW: Another aspect is that I usually allow my =characters= to have a sense of humor. They're allowed to at least grin now and again about the situation they're in.
JF: Might you accept being categorized to an extent as sf-noir?
WJW: Well, one is obliged to take one's fiction seriously at least part of the time. But, as the omniscient narrator, I am often aware of ironies in my characters' situation that they do not perceive.
JF: I believe that is how I've always reacted to your books. You mentioned class issues. What would you say are some of the other issues you try to bring to the surface?
WJW: WHOOPS! Netscape just performed no less than THREE illegal acts and shut down. Let me collect my wits for a second, and I'll answer some questions.
JF: Take your time--given this interface, it's a little less than a real-time chat.
WJW: Okay. Noir first. A lot of my work is noir, definitely. I grew up reading James M. Cain, Hammett, Chandler. There's something to be said for concentrating now and again on the stripped-down values of survival, betrayal, and trust.
WOW! Three more illegal acts! The FBI should definitely arrest my copy of Netscape before it runs amuck!
Much of my work concerns issues of power and caste. Who has it, who doesn't. I've written about the issue from both sides. Gabriel in ARISTOI has enormous power, enough that Genghis Khan would go blue with envy. Whereas Sarah in HARDWIRED has no power at all, and little hope of achieving any. She'd settle for just being left alone, basically, but it's not going to happen.
JF: If I may ask, is there anything in your life which has particularly led to such observations, or is it just society in general that has prompted you to write of castes?
WJW: I suppose some of it may have to do with the effects of living in dire and humiliating poverty for a number of years. Being screwed over by people with power, and unable to prevent it. Which led to considerable thought being given to the issue of how much the powerful owe to those without power, and how much the powerless should be allowed to hope.
JF: I, too, have had bouts with awful poverty. But as a broadcaster most of my life (albeit an unpaid one) I always had a sense of power that gave me, even though the broadcasting I do is on sf and other arts. Does writing return a feeling of power for you in any way?
WJW: Writing doesn't give me NEARLY ENOUGH power!
JF: Now THAT'S what I meant about an underlying grin...
WJW: The fact that one is able to exercise unlimited power over nonexistent people is an inadequate palliative for being powerless in reality, I find, though it's certainly better than having no power over anything at all. Perhaps if the rewards of writing were more immediate, as they must be in broadcasting, I'd find it more satisfying on that level.
JF: An interesting point--the immediacy of the medium does have a lot to do with it, I'll warrant. Speaking of which, you've been accessible online for longer than many other writers, I believe, and you maintain your own website. Do you see any potential for online media as artistic expression? One that you could work in?
WJW: There's certainly a lot of potential in the online medium, though I wouldn't say it's quite "there" yet in terms of speed, verisimilitude, and (ahem) reliability . . .
What the medium will bring -- has brought, as far as that goes -- is a leveling of the information hierarchy. McCluhan observed that with television everything is reduced to the same level of impact. News programs, with war, genocide, and horror, are presented with the same urgency as commercials for Geritol . . .
Online media are the same as TV, only more so. The most strident, looniest paranoid-schizophrenic can produce a web page to compete with that of the White House. It both empowers individuals, but it enhances and reinforces craziness. Every nut group in the world has a web page. The Klan, the National Front, the militias, the Stalinists . . .
JF: Have you thought of straying from the (strictly) written form to other media? Or of seeing your work adapted?
WJW: I can work in any media, once I get a handle on its basics. I've written a couple screenplays and been paid for them, though the movies weren't made. I've been peripherally involved in a couple computer games. I am most at home with straight text, though, and it gives me the most satisfaction. Movies or TV is a collaborative effort, but writing fiction gives me a chance to solo.
As for adaptations to other media, I have no problem with the concept, and I think it would be potentially fun. As James M. Cain said when asked what he thought of what Hollywood had done to his books, "Hollywood didn't do anything to my books. They're right there, on the shelf."
JF: Does hypertext hold any intrigue for you?
WJW: ARISTOI was conceived as a hypertext novel, though the medium wasn't really there yet. I'm dubious about this concept in the long run, though. Fiction depends on things like the slow building of character, careful revelations concerning the background, pacing, timing . . . Jumping around at will in the text won't necessarily produce a satisfying read.
Ellen Datlow: I agree with Walter about hypertext. I think it will be far more useful for nonfiction in the long run than in what we currently consider the novel form.
JF: I believe I agree, though I'm always trying to push the envelope. The market aside, do you have a preference for length? (I almost always ask this of those who, like yourself, also write short stories.)
WJW: Bumped off again! . . . To actually answer a question, I seem to be comfortable at all lengths, though I am most successful at the long novelette or novella length. The novella seems the right length to develop a good SF'nal idea and explore a character without having to go to the trouble of writing a novel. I really envy people like Robert Silverberg, who seem to be able to come up more or less at will with a story that has a fresh idea, engaging characters, and a satisfying resolution, and do it all in 15 pages or less.
JF: Yet maintaining consistently interesting characters through a series of books is also difficult, and you certainly pull that off well.
WJW: I only wish I had time to write more short fiction. I'd like to take a year off and just write short stories. But unfortunately it's the novels that pay the bills, so I have to spend most of my time at novel length.
JF: Alas, that is an all too common answer. Not to denigrate novels, but I consider short stories to be gems, and wish there could be a way to make them pay for the writer's time.
WJW: Thank you for the compliment. It =is= hard work keeping a character fresh through more than one volume.
JF: Getting back to the issue of power, is there any hope? Have you found a way to exercise your own destiny, as it were?
WJW: Well, there's always MONEY! There's the famous essay by Virginia Woolf in which she recommends having an income of--- what?--- two hundred pounds per year. (Of course that was in an era when the average working woman earned maybe one-tenth that sum.
Basically, one needs whatever it takes to give one independence. But you don't want to be so independent that you're cut off from everyone else, and from ordinary concerns. There's nothing more boring than someone whose entire message is, "Oh, it's so dreadful being rich and carefree!"
Still, I wouldn't mind if Ed McMahon lifts me above all of that . . .
JF: In that regard, do you envy the lifestyle of any of your characters? The lead in THE CROWN JEWELS always held a particular fantasy for me.
WJW: The world of THE CROWN JEWELS would be fun if you had the money to support the lifestyle (which my character doesn't, by the way). Being Gabriel in ARISTOI would be a blast. (Hmmm . . . think I'll make a world today, and finish that opera I started yesterday . . . )
I would like to at least visit almost all the worlds I've written about, even the bleak ones. Though I'm not sure I'd care to be any of my characters--- as their creator, I'm more aware of their problems and limitations than anyone.
JF: A question from Schenectady (as in where do ideas come from): When a novel/story germinates, does it begin in any one place? A character, a theme, an idea?
WJW: Most of my stories have begun with a character. Sometimes a character in a given situation. Once I know what character I want to write about, I try to devise a scenario, or world, that will put that character under pressure to reveal itself to the reader.
Lately, though, my novels have begun with a world or a landscape. Once I thoroughly develop a world, as in ARISTOI or METROPOLITAN, I then devise characters that reveal the world to the reader (and presumably themselves along with it).
JF: How do you tend to relate to your characters? Do you like most of them? Are they distinct from you or a part of you, or all of the above, etc.?
WJW: I am pretty cold-blooded about my characters on the whole. I do develop a fondness for some of them, but it's sort of the fondness one has for one's pets, not the fondness one has for a friend. After all, I live with some of these characters for a year or more. By the time the project is finished, I usually want to punch them in the nose.
JF: I found the landscape of METROPOLITAN most disturbing, being a native N'Yawker. I pass through the World Trade Center each day going to work, and I keep an eye out for people bursting into flame...
WJW: Imagine New York if it was, say, two thousand years older, and there's METROPOLITAN. After all, the World Trade Center DID burst into flame, and it didn't need the magical system from METROPOLITAN to do it!
JF: I guess that assures an end to certain series, at any rate. Are there any (besides METROPOLITAN) that you might revisit?
WJW: I'd like to write a sequel to ARISTOI one of these days. The ARISTOI future is broad enough to carry another volume or two. There are some shorter works to which I'd like to write a sequel, or at least another story set in the same world.
JF: ARISTOI's premise holds limitless potential, I would say. There'd always be a new facet to explore, if you chose.
WJW: I'd like to write an ARISTOI from the point of view of someone who isn't an Aristos, who doesn't have all the power, and who can't quite control all the sub-personalities and daimones that an Aristos can manage. Who has to actually struggle with the technology a bit.
JF: I would like to read that book, so I hope you have an opportunity to write it soon. We only have a few obligatory minutes left, but I'd like to ask who you consider your literary antecedents.
WJW: Literary antecedents? Oh jeez, everyone back to Homer, I guess. Shakespeare, Conrad, Nabokov, Austen, Pynchon, Chancler, Cain. Samuel R. Delany, Robert Heinlein, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, Alfred Bester.
JF: A fine and admirable list, and one with which I would agree. You're in good company. Before we sign off, is there anything you'd care to share/say/emote?
WJW: Well, I'd like to thank you and Ellen for the chance to appear. Despite the software weirdness, I've enjoyed myself.
Ellen Datlow: Walter, thanks for joining us. And Jim, thanks for your usual great job.
WJW: And everyone out there go out and BUY MY BOOKS, or I'll set the World Trade Center aflame!
JF: Thanks for being here, Walter. It was a pleasure. Perhaps I can get you to be on the radio someday...
And thanks Ellen for this wonderful schedule of events. Good night.