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Interview - Walter Jon Williams

Thursday, Jul 17, 2008 at 9:39am

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Walter Jon Williams has been successful for over twenty years in writing mostly hard science fiction while many of the genre's authors have turned to fantasy to satisfy readers. Part of that success has come from looking for places that no one else was writing, and finding, or creating a gap to fill. From his early cyberpunk-esque work Hardwired and the related novels, through the complex fantastic science-fiction of the Metropolitan series and the galaxy-spanning Dread Empire books, Walter's work has consistently asked us to look at how our philosophy shapes the world we live in. Nowhere is that more true than in his latest book Implied Spaces, new this month from Nightshade.

KP: Walter, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I'd like to leap right off the start to your newest book. Implied spaces reminds me very much of the feeling I got when I read Voice of the Whirlwind 20 years ago. Was there anything intentional in that, or is it simply a natural progression of interest?

WJW: I wasn't deliberately looking back to Voice, but I'm pleased you thought the books had the same feel. Voice is one of the books I'm most proud of.

That said, I'm not sure what Voice has in common with Implied Spaces; aside from the fact that they're both relatively short, at least as compared with my other books. Of course they're both by me, in which case I'm glad you stayed around as a reader!

KP: Implied Spaces is one of the most enjoyable post-singularity books I've read, and has attracted some nice comments from Vernor Vinge and Charles Stross, among others. It treats machine intelligence in an unbiased fashion, allowing machines to truly be their own intelligent life form, rather than being an emotionless stand-in for some ideal human. Did that attitude come quickly for you, or has it developed slowly over the years you've been writing?

WJW: I think it?s a logical development of the type of machine intelligence that I envisioned for the book. Given that the AIs in Implied Spaces were very large computing platforms with a high degree of autonomy, they would over time develop their own interests and a degree of personality. Given that they were hardwired to obey human commands and forbidden to harm humans, and given as well that humans had more or less "colonized" them and were living on and inside them, they would have evolved personalities that were capable of interacting with humans.

The character of Bitsy, the protagonist's companion, is a special case. In that case the AI suspects that Aristide has the keys to its freedom, and has evolved a personality meant to be pleasing to Aristide. The fact that Aristide is perfectly aware of this adds a sophisticated dimension to the relationship.

I also have to say that large, unknowable, incomprehensibly intelligent AI make poor characters in fiction. They're fine for sitting in the background--like God--but when you want your characters to interact with them, they should have more quirks than mere omniscience.

KP: Do you think that machine intelligence is close, and do you think that we will be ready to identify it when it emerges, or will it simply slip under the radar?

WJW: SF has a tendency to envision large general technological advances that have broad applications across the spectrum of human behavior. For instance, SF created the idea of humanoid robots that would be jacks-of-all-trades, and largely ignored the idea of specialty robots that only did one thing, be it weld auto frames, aid bomb disposal teams, or bake bread on kitchen table tops.

Likewise, our fiction tends toward giant non-specialized AI, a sort of AI-of-all-trades that can rationalize city planning, answer complex sociological questions, command the military, plot courses between the stars, and diagnose us when we're ill.

We?re ignoring the specialized AI that's already here, and that does a lot of these things already, just not everything at once.

KP: Implied Spaces, as with so many of your books, requires the protagonist to take a hard look at philosophy and how essential our philosophy is to the underpinnings of society. My personal feeling is that with few exceptions, genre authors have invested more energy in commercializing their fiction, robbing the genre of these chances for introspection. Do you have any opinion or comments on whether you think philosophy is given short shrift in most modern commercial fiction? Do you have any other, related, comments?

WJW: People write about what interests them. Philosophy has always been the interest of a minority.

That said, I'd like to point out that SF and fantasy are tailor-made for discussion of all the Big Questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose? One of the reasons that Star Trek and Star Wars had such an impact on our culture is that they both openly embraced these issues.

If you ask a fictional character his purpose, and his answer is, "I'm here to entertain the reader," you really can't complain, but on the other hand you're entitled to lament a certain lack of scope.

KP: I'd like to move away from your work now, to you and what brought you to writing. When and why did you begin writing?

WJW: I've been compelled to write as long as I could remember. Before I could even read, I dictated stories to my parents, who wrote them down for me.

KP: Do you manage to make a living with your writing, or do you have to supplement that income? If so, what do you do for supplemental income?

WJW: As of January 1, 2009, I will have made my principal living from writing for 30 years. I've written fiction, I've done graphic novels, I've written for computer games, and I've done movies and TV. On occasion I've taught, but 99% of my living has been through fiction of one sort of another.

KP: Could you share a bit about the writing process, and how it works for you?

WJW: I'm a systematic writer, and I prefer to do a lot of planning ahead of time. Some of my projects--Aristoi is a good example--were in the planning stage for years before I ever wrote a line of the actual novel. It's not that I'm not open to surprises when I write, but that I very much prefer to know where the story is headed before I begin. It enables me to keep things in focus as I write.

In the case of the Dread Empire's Fall books, I knew the last sentence of the third book before I ever wrote the first sentence of Book One. That way, I was able to aim every piece of the work at that ending, and I'm pleased to say that the ending has a lot of impact as a result.

When I'm working on one project, I'm thinking about the next, or often the next half-dozen. I'm gathering material, trying out ideas, doing research, trying to fit things together. Because I work my way into the material intuitively, the process takes a fair amount of time, but it saves a lot of work in the end. I don't experience a lot of false starts, and I don't write a lot of superfluous material that later has to be discarded.

Writers who enter a work without a plan frustrate me, because it's usually obvious when they do it, and their books end up bloated and wandering. I've often thought that I've missed a career as an editor--I'd like to get out a cleaver and chop those 450-page monsters down to a nifty, neat 200 pages.

KP: Has writing always been fairly smooth for you, or are there particular aspects of the process that you find more difficult than others?

WJW: I always know the beginning before I start, and I know the end. The middle part is hazy, however, and that's usually where I run into trouble.

KP: Do you write to any sort of time or word-count schedule?

WJW: When my deadlines are severe I'll impose that kind of discipline on myself, but generally I don't care for it. I'm naturally a slow-but-steady sort of writer, and usually I enjoy writing, so I'd prefer not to have to be hard-nosed and just enjoy the process.

KP: Do you ever experience "writers' block" and if so do you have any favorite technique for getting past it?

WJW: I've only been blocked for a few days at the most. I've learned that when I'm blocked it's because I've taken a wrong path, and my subconscious mind is telling me so. So when I can't seem to progress, I know to knock off work and let my subconscious sort out the problem for me.

KP: Many genre writers feel restricted by the categorizations. Have you found the SF label restrictive, and are there specific actions you have taken to get around such restrictions?

WJW: What I'd prefer is for the chains to have a "Really Good Books" category, and then they could put my stuff there.

I haven't felt the constraints of the genre until relatively recently. SF sales fell dramatically in the 90s, and American publishers responded by becoming a lot more conservative in what they chose to publish. When I consider the kind of wild extrapolative explosions that happened in the field in the 60s and 80s, and compare that with what the major SF lines are doing now, I can't help but lament the wild flights of fancy that I know I'm missing, because nobody's putting them in print.

Fortunately the smaller presses are doing a pretty remarkable job of picking up the slack. Night Shade, for example, picked me up, which I can't help but think is a good thing.

KP: Could you share a few of the high points in your life that you feel have helped make you who you are, both personally and professionally?

WJW: Well, I got kicked out of grad school, which didn't seem like such a high point at the time, but it made me concentrate on writing, so it was positive in the end.

I never wanted to be one of those writers who spent his life staring at a wall, and who ends up knowing nothing but what he read in books--or, more latterly, online. I wanted to be engaged with existence. So I learned small-boat sailing, and took up scuba, and earned a fourth-degree black belt in Kenpo Karate. I try to take a trip abroad at least every other year.

And I'm married to a wonderful woman who puts up with all of this, and who likes travel as much as I do. I get to share a lot of the high points with someone else, and that is very nice indeed.

KP: Do you do much traveling to promote your work, and when you do, do you generally find that invigorating, or is it a tiring process?

WJW: My one and only signing tour was two days long, so I didn't have a lot of opportunity to get bored with it. Generally speaking, I envy all those writers who complain about the endless drudgery of their signing tours--at least their publisher is taking an interest.

I attend a few SF conventions every year, mostly to see my friends. Though I do signings, readings, and other promotional activities at cons, and though I live ever in hope, it has to be admitted that most con fans don't have a clue about who I am. Though I certainly have a readership, they don't seem to be the sort of people who turn up at signings and cons. Some day I'd like to meet them.

KP: You've taken a lot of risks with your career, pushing your writing in directions that are frequently untraveled by many other writers. Have you ever regretted the decision to generally avoid the more commercially accepted paths?

WJW: Shows you what I know! I've always thought my ideas were totally commercial! Of course I have a terrific imagination, possibly a better imagination than most publishing PR departments.

The one chance I thought I was taking was with Hardwired, which I figured would find an audience of about twelve people in a sweaty-walled underground jazz club in Prague or someplace. But then, before I finished the novel, Neuromancer appeared, and was a huge artistic and commercial success, some of which rubbed off on my work, and I was off and away.

KP: Do you manage to read very much yourself, and what are you reading now, for fun, and/or research?

WJW: I seem to have fewer and fewer opportunities for reading for pleasure. Most of what I read is research, or manuscripts for our local critique group, or a novel-of-the-moment that I feel obliged to read in the name of keeping up with the field, and which I usually want to edit with a hatchet.

Right now I'm reading Gore Vidal's Hollywood, one of his series of inter-nested historical novels that began with Burr. It's an absolute delight. One of the advantages of reading someone with such a lengthy career is that you can always find one of his books that you haven't read before.

Sort of like Jack Vance, now that I think about it.

KP: Are there any new authors that you have found particularly interesting?

WJW: I'm always wary of providing these kinds of lists, because there's always someone I inadvertently leave off who's going to get offended. So I'll confine myself to books I've read in manuscript.

Daniel Abraham's The Long Price Quartet is absolutely wonderful. The must-read fantasy series of the decade, if you want to know.

New writer Ian Tregillis has a terrific alternative-history series coming up called The Milkweed Triptych. Watch for it.

Melinda Snodgrass, who it must be admitted is not exactly a new writer, has a new series out beginning with The Edge of Reason. I believe it's been called The Left Behind series for rational people, which should intrigue you, I hope.

And S.M. Stirling, who is not new either, has a winner in Courts of the Crimson Kings. More fun than a barrel of meth-crazed monkeys.

KP: Is there anything else you'd like to share with the readers?

WJW: Because I keep reading books I want to edit with a hatchet, I started a writers' workshop which actually teaches plotting. No one else teaches this stuff, to my knowledge, because it's too freaking hard. ("Because they're idiots!" screams the Creature from the Id.)

Last year we had a wonderful time with Connie Willis teaching and a special appearance by George R.R. Martin, and this year we've got Kelly Link and Stephen R. Donaldson.

And we do it all in a lodge in the mountains above Taos, amid the aspen and ponderosa, with a mountain stream trickling by and occasional glimpses of deer, bighorn sheep, and bear.

And there's a hot tub. What more do you want?

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Categories: Interview, Staff Pick, Authors, SciFi & Fantasy

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Implied Spaces

- Walter Jon Williams

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Aristide, a semi-retired computer scientist turned swordsman, is a scholar of the implied spaces, seeking meaning amid the accidents of architecture in a universe where reality itself has been sculpted and designed by superhuman machine intelligence. While exploring the pre-technological world Midgarth, one of four dozen pocket universes created within a series of vast, orbital matrioshka computer arrays, Aristide uncovers a fiendish plot threatening to set off a nightmare scenario, perhaps even bringing about the ultimate Existential Crisis: the end of civilization itself. Traveling the pocket universes with his wormhole-edged sword Tecmesssa in hand and talking cat Bitsy, avatar of the planet-sized computer Endora, at his side, Aristide must find a way to save the multiverse from subversion, sabotage, and certain destruction.

Skyhorse Publishing, under our Night Shade and Talos imprints, is proud to publish a broad range of titles for readers interested in science fiction (space opera, time travel, hard SF, alien invasion, near-future dystopia), fantasy (grimdark, sword and sorcery, contemporary urban fantasy, steampunk, alternative history), and horror (zombies, vampires, and the occult and supernatural), and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller, a national bestseller, or a Hugo or Nebula award-winner, we are committed to publishing quality books from a diverse group of authors.


- Walter Jon Williams

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ears ago, the last desperate hopes of Earth were crushed as corporate Orbital blocs ruling from on high devastated the planet's face. Today, the autocratic Orbitals indulge in decadent luxury far above the mudboys, dirtgirls, zonedancers, and buttonheads who live out violent lives of electronic distraction and dependence amid the flooded, ruined cities and teeming slums of a balkanized America.

But there are heroes; those who would stand against the Orbital powers and keep freedom's cause alive. Two such heroes are the metal-eyed ex-fighter pilot turned panzer-driver Cowboy, and Sarah, the cybernetic assassin desperate to find a better life for her drug-addicted brother. Together, Cowboy and Sarah embark on a high-octane odyssey across the shattered face of the American west.

From Walter Jon Williams comes Hardwired, the hard-hitting, seminal classic that feels as prescient today as when it was first published. Like a steel-guitar fueled Damnation Alley, as directed by Sam Peckinpah, Hardwired demonstrates how Williams's singular vision helped defined the cyberpunk genre.

Skyhorse Publishing, under our Night Shade and Talos imprints, is proud to publish a broad range of titles for readers interested in science fiction (space opera, time travel, hard SF, alien invasion, near-future dystopia), fantasy (grimdark, sword and sorcery, contemporary urban fantasy, steampunk, alternative history), and horror (zombies, vampires, and the occult and supernatural), and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller, a national bestseller, or a Hugo or Nebula award-winner, we are committed to publishing quality books from a diverse group of authors.

Voice of the Whirlwind

- Walter Jon Williams

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In Voice of the Whirlwind, Walter Jon Williams has projected the universe of Hardwired one hundred years into the future, to a time when the orbitals have become independent feudal states with an interstellar drive. But the one constant of humankind is political intrigue...

Steward is Beta, a clone. His memories are fifteen years old because his Alpha never did have a brain-scan update. In those fifteen years, the entire world has changed: The orbital Policorp which held his allegiance has collapsed; dozens of his friends have died in an off-planet war: an alien race has established relations with humanity; his wife has borne a child, and divorced him; his second wife has also divorced him; and someone has murdered him.

Steward still has the skills that made him a perfect military commando for his bankrupt Policorp sponsors of fifteen years ago. But does he have the right skills, and can he find the missing knowledge and pieces of history that will lead him to the killer of his Alpha?

Destiny's Way

- Walter Jon Williams

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The time of reckoning is close at hand. Events in the New York Times bestselling Star Wars The New Jedi Order series take a decisive turn, as the heroes of the New Republic prepare for their most volatile clash yet with the enemy--from without and within.

In the war against the ruthless Yuuzhan Vong, the fall of Coruscant leaves the New Republic divided by internal strife, and on the verge of bowing to conquest. But those who steadfastly refuse to consider surrender--Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa Solo, and their children and comrades-in-arms--are determined to seize victory against overwhelming odds. And now, finally, there are signs that the tide may be turning in the New Republic's favor.

After capturing crucial Yuuzhan Vong intelligence, Jedi fighter-pilot Jaina Solo prepares to lead a daring surprise strike against an enemy flagship. Meanwhile, Jaina's brother Jacen--liberated from the hands of the enemy and newly schooled in an even greater mastery of the Force by the Jedi Knight Vergere--is eagerly poised to bring his unique skills to bear against the invaders. And on Mon Calamari, the New Republic's provisional capital, the retired, ailing hero Admiral Ackbar has conceived a major tactical plan that could spell the beginning of a swift end for the Yuuzhan Vong.

Yet even as opposing squadrons face off in the depths of space, intrigue runs rampant: in the heated political race for Chief of State . . . in the shadows where Yuuzhan Vong spies plot assassinations . . . and in the inscrutable creature Vergere, a Jedi Knight whose allegiance is impossible to predict. And as Luke Skywalker sets about reestablishing the Jedi Council, the growing faction opposed to the ways of the Force unveil a terrifying weapon designed to annihilate the Yuuzhan Vong species. But in doing so, they may be dooming the New Republic to becoming the very thing it has sworn to fight against--and unleashing the power of the dark side.