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New Fantasy & Science Fiction

Interview with Robert Charles Wilson

Here is our complete interview with Robert Charles Wilson. It also appears in Challenging Destiny Number 7.

interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer

CD: The characters in The Harvest were asked the question "Do you want to live forever?" If you were asked that question, would you say yes or no?

RCW: Well, it depends what strings were attached -- it depends on the writers and the contract. The reason it was interesting to pose that question in The Harvest was that I tried to make it the best possible offer -- I tried to make it immortality virtually without strings attached. You could carry on in a kind of afterlife, you could retain your personality indefinitely, or you could change, expand, absorb, become something larger than you are. No obligations, every possibility is open to you. It struck me as interesting that there would be people who would nonetheless turn down that offer. My own inclination would have been to accept it under those circumstances, and given a certain knowledge of these things. It's the people who didn't who attracted my attention dramatically.

CD: Those are the people you can write the story about.

RCW: Exactly.

CD: How do you create characters that seem like real people? And how do you create interesting villains?

RCW: I wouldn't be the first writer to observe that my heroes and my villains are myself, essentially. You draw on experience. The key to creating characters for me has always been finding the voice. You can outline a character, you can give them a biography, you can feel that you know them, but if you can't actually hear their voice and transcribe their voice then you don't know them well enough.

Villains are fun because you can just give them all your own bad impulses and every impure urge you ever had. You can give them to them and let them indulge it. It's like stripping away your own conscience. It's like confessing to every pettiness or evil impulse you ever had, and there's something gratifying about that.

CD: A character like Billy Gargullo from Bridge of Years is more ambiguous than, say, Colonel Tyler from The Harvest.

RCW: The ambiguity is interesting. He's as much a victim as villain. And I think that's an interesting process dramatically too. You can hurt someone and abuse someone long enough and hard enough that they become a monster, essentially. You can't quite withhold your sympathy, but you can't quite grant it wholeheartedly either. It's one of the ambiguities of human existence. It was fun to give him a little redemption at the end, almost to give him a second chance -- to rewind his history and let him start over again, rather than just vanquishing the villain.

CD: Why do you write, and why do you write SF?

RCW: They're almost the same question for me. And I haven't answered it satisfactorily to myself. All I can say is that for as long as I can remember, from my childhood, I've had a fascination with the strange, the exotic -- SF, fantasy, horror. It seemed to come to me so naturally, to be so much a part of my personality, that I can't stand objectively outside it and ask, why do these things attract me? The urge to write was part of my life since the word go -- I love to read and I love to write. As soon as I learned to read and write it's what I did. So the two interests converged and became one thing, and the interest was ferocious enough to sustain me through all those years when you don't do it very well and your efforts aren't met with much in the way of positive reception.

CD: Are there any particular authors who have influenced your writing?

RCW: I think that the authors that really influence us are the ones that we read when we're young and naive. When you're young and naive you can read it utterly uncritically. There are writers like Ray Bradbury who can just take you away. If you go back to some of the early Bradbury as an adult, you can see all kinds of problems with it. You can see that it's not terribly sophisticated, but you can still see the charm -- you can still see the power, the immediacy of it, the poetry of it. But the nice thing when you're ten is you can see all of those things but you can't see any of the flaws. It seemed to me that someone like Bradbury had a God-like power, and exercised it with benevolence and wisdom. And I wanted to do that too -- I thought that would be the coolest thing on Earth.

When I was that age I devoured all of SF whole, so I can't pick out any particular writer. I read all of Bradbury, all of Heinlein, all of Asimov, and so on. I find nowadays that when you're 45 your enthusiasms are a little more restrained. In fact, the amazing thing is that I still get a huge kick out of SF. You would imagine someone would get jaded. Of course, I run into annoyingly bad stuff all the time, and I'm critical of certain authors. But I still get that rush from SF. And I don't know how you would carry on as a writer if you didn't get that rush and try to feed it in your work.

CD: What are some good books you've read lately?

RCW: A good book by a Canadian author is A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright. It's a contemporary sequel to H. G. Wells in which somebody in 1999 uncovers the time machine, and travels into the future. But he encounters a rather different future -- he ends up in a deserted England after global warming has turned it semi-tropical. The only surviving civilization in the British Isles is a bunch of people in the Scottish highlands raising llamas. It's a gorgeously written book. I've not come across a book as intriguing -- as simple as that plot sounds, he gives you all the sense of wonder. He's not someone coming from a hard SF background, he's coming from a mainstream literary background, but it's all there -- the sense of wonder, the sense of stepping into a future you can imagine existing, and experiencing it through the eyes of someone who sees it with all the wonder it deserves.

Lots of other books lately. I've been reading some of the British and Australian hard SF -- Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan. I tend to like the hard SF, because it seems to me disciplined in a certain way. We can do all kinds of things in SF, but these guys keep us honest. There's this core of people saying that wouldn't work, you can't do that, this is what you can do. These are the ideas you can play with, and you can play with them rigorously, and you know that they're held within the bounds of plausibility. I admire that kind of disciplined work. In some ways it's the heart of the field. We need it there, even if that's not what interests us at the time -- even if we're exploring over here, writing more humanist SF, more poetic SF, we need that solid core of hard SF.

CD: What do you think of SF on TV or in movies?

RCW: I have the common prejudice against media SF, in that it seldom represents what I love about the written work. On the other hand, I have seen things in the media that capture that feeling too -- as far back as Forbidden Planet which evokes 40s SF in a very stark and vivid way. The Truman Show is, I think, faithful to the spirit of Philip K. Dick. I love to see it reflected in the media, and I think it has a potential appeal -- there's no reason you have to dumb things down. So I get impatient with things like Armageddon.

CD: What do you do when you're not reading or writing?

RCW: The usual stuff. I like to work on old tube hi-fi gear from the 50s and 60s. I've travelled some -- nothing out of the ordinary.

CD: How do you start writing a book?

RCW: It varies from book to book. With every book I've written some things have been cast in stone almost from the beginning, and some things you develop and explore as you go along. Thematically, I do like to explore things as I write. You accumulate stuff in your head when you're a writer and thinking about novels, and always unconsciously searching for ideas, notions, bits of characters, detail, or thoughts. You accumulate a vast heap of these things and sort through them in your mind, and you pick some out, set them aside. Some are shinier than others, some are more difficult and need polishing. You set aside everything you like, stack it together and see what nice pattern you can make. Some of this you do consciously and some of this you do unconsciously. Eventually it strikes you that you have enough material, enough interconnections are making their appearance, that you can begin writing. You have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You have a notion, and you have an idea how this notion is going to affect people for better or worse. You have some characters you'd like to set in contrast to that notion, and it slowly comes together. It's not a magical process. You have to both look for it and not look for it too hard -- that's the trick.

CD: It's hard to put your books into categories like hard SF, literary SF, and so on. How do you feel about those categories?

RCW: I think they're legitimate handles for discussing the genre. I don't think of my work in those terms. I think as SF writers we're entitled to all this stuff. I think we arbitrarily set these things up against each other when they don't actually oppose at all. If I want to write a rigorous novel about the exploration of the Moon I will do that. If I want to write a fantasy novel about the jungles of the Moon then I'll do that too. They're slightly different tropes and you approach them in slightly different ways, but I don't think we have to plant our flag on one of these areas and declare the others out of bounds.

There are real distinctions between these subgenres, and there are reasons to approach them differently in certain ways. You don't write a fantasy novel the way you write a SF novel, for instance.

CD: How do you feel about the categories from a marketing perspective?

RCW: I think SF is now a broad enough genre that we do need a few clues. It's not always easy for a reader to find more of what he wants. When I was younger, SF was a small enough genre that if that was what you wanted you would go to the SF section and buy all the SF books in a given year -- all 5 or 10 of them. But you can't go into a bookstore now and buy all the SF. And not all the SF novels are perhaps the kind of thing you like. We need a few tags to help readers find what they want. I don't think there's anything demeaning about helping a reader find what he's looking for. If it gets the books into the right hands, if the books find readers, that's OK with me. I don't think it's ghettoization, it's more like operating your search engine a little more efficiently. It's a problem when we get trapped by them, by the presumed definitions of these things, and feel obliged to stay within these borders.

CD: How do you like writing short stories versus novels?

RCW: I broke into the field with short stories, but they were always harder for me than novels. I had always read more novels than short stories. I've been writing more short work recently -- I've come to appreciate how important it is in the history of the field. We existed for decades as a field of short story writers -- the people who wrote for the pulp magazines. The novel as a viable SF category didn't really exist until the 50s except as serializations in magazines. I find it hard to be concise enough to write a short story. My short stories tend toward the novelette or the novella. But short stories do fascinate me -- I've been reading more of them lately, and I've been writing more of them lately.

CD: You went on a book signing tour with Robert J. Sawyer last summer. How was your experience doing that?

RCW: It was the first time I'd toured with a book. And it was good to have company, especially someone as media-savvy as Rob is. They booked us on some weird gigs -- we were on an all-black gospel radio station in Detroit. We were interviewed by some really patient guy trying to give us our due -- he was an intelligent guy -- but it was this strange context. There was some strange little right-wing lady who had a radio show in Tacoma, ran it out of a shopping mall. We filed in there and sat in this little booth with this woman who started going on about welfare parasites and how horrible Clinton was and gun control. All in all, it was a positive experience. The bookstore signings were great, it was great meeting people and talking to them. It tends to build a connection between yourself and your readers that you don't normally get except at conventions.

CD: At conventions it's a particular subset of readers.

RCW: It's a more generalized public that you meet, although there are often very few of them at any given signing. I didn't enjoy the midnight plane rides. I came back from it feeling good about the book and feeling good about what I'd done.

CD: What are you up to next?

RCW: The next novel that's coming out is called Bios, it's due out from Tor in November. I've also signed with Tor to do a novel I'm working on now called The Chronoliths. And they're also doing a collection of my short work too, it's a collection of my Toronto stories. I've been doing a cycle of stories in Toronto settings, and the stories are vaguely interrelated. They're putting them all together in one volume, which is gratifying to me because I look on those as some of my best work.

CD: After Chronoliths?

RCW: One book at a time. I'm five chapters into Chronoliths.

CD: Could you tell us a bit about Bios?

RCW: Bios is the closest thing I've written to a hard SF novel. It's the first novel I've written that takes place entirely off Earth. About 100 years in the future. The premise is that interstellar travel is possible but it's hugely expensive and only barely practical. Sort of like Apollo -- you can go to the Moon, but you can't stay there any length of time, and it's difficult and expensive. So I'm imagining a future where you can travel to relatively nearby stars but it takes most of the solar system's resources to sustain one of these launches. You have to pick and choose what you do. The problem is that humanity has found one biological active world among the nearby stars, and the life there is DNA-based -- it's an attractive-looking planet, it's very Earth-like. But it's toxic as hell. It's essentially a planet-sized level 4 hot zone. The initial fear that humanity might contaminate a delicate biosphere is replaced quickly with the realization that there is no terrestrial organism that this biosphere can't devour and absorb in a matter of minutes. It's fascinating but terribly dangerous. No one has physically set foot on the planet except wrapped up in massive protective year, and after gruelling sterilization procedures.

The character in Bios is a young woman named Zoe Fisher who has been groomed for duty on Isis -- that's the name of this planet. She's been genetically engineered for it, she has all sorts of elaborate augmentations -- immune system augmentation, emotional augmentation. For years she's been kept on a thymostat, which moderates her moods, keeps her alert, vigilant, but puts a layer between her and common human emotional experience. Her problem is that she arrives at Isis with her thymostat dysfunctional, and does not know it.

CD: What's your experience been living in Canada versus the US?

RCW: I was born in the States -- I'm still technically a US citizen. But my parents came up here when I was 9 years old and I've lived here essentially ever since. So I think of myself as Canadian. I've spent the vast majority of my life living in Canada. I chose to continue living here when my folks moved back to the States, for instance. I don't feel as native Canadian as other writers might -- but on the other hand, the immigrant experience is part of the Canadian experience too. It's far from unusual to meet Canadians who were born in the US or England, Vietnam, Bosnia -- anywhere. I haven't felt quite entitled to the tag of "Canadian SF writer" but even less entitled to the tag of "American SF writer."

You write the books you want to write, and of course you draw on your experience. To what extent it influences your work, I don't think I'm in a position to say. That's a judgement for others to make.

CD: So you've got things like your book The Harvest set in the States, and those stories you mentioned set in Toronto.

RCW: I feel entitled to either setting. I have family in Colorado, I have family in California, I have family in Alaska. I've been to those places. I don't feel like I'm setting something in a foreign country if I use an American setting. And it's convenient when you're writing SF because the US is a large, technically advanced, influential country that's going to play a large part in the history of the 21st century whether we like it or not. You can't really avoid writing about the US. But I don't feel provincial when writing about Canada either. Some stories lend themselves to some settings and some stories don't.

CD: Would you consider writing for some other medium, like a screenplay?

RCW: I've been offered a couple of opportunities to write screenplays, but nothing developed from them. I don't feel at all comfortable writing a screenplay -- it's a difficult, exacting art and it ain't my art. The best experience I had with a screenplay was when there was an option on Mysterium, and the producers got a script from John Shirley. I thought John Shirley did a fine job -- he was not religious about sticking to the material, but the changes he made all made sense to me in terms of the dramatic medium he was working in. It came within a hair of being produced -- it was turned down at the last minute by someone at ABC on the grounds that it might be religiously offensive to certain viewers.

On the other hand, I've seen my work farmed out to other people who have botched it. I saw a script for The Harvest that I thank God was never produced. I believe it ended with someone firing a giant hypodermic needle into a spaceship to fill it with human blood which would kill alien blood, or something like that. It was grim.

CD: What's your opinion on UFOs?

RCW: I wrote a story for an anthology called The UFO Files that Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg did. So it required me to entertain the idea seriously. And it does fascinate me -- the psychology behind Roswell, and the saucer people, the people who get caught up in the saucer mythology. But I wanted to do a different take on it in that story. I used the lore to a certain extent. I discovered that one of the guys who wrote some of the early saucer crank books, he was famous for writing some of these early 50s I-was-taken-on-a-tour-of-Venus-by-flying-saucers books. I discovered that he owned a diner, which was on the road up to Palomar, in the 50s when the big installation in Palomar took place, and this was when Edwin Hubble was working at Palomar. And I thought of these dedicated scientists driving past this guy's diner, which he named something like The Space Diner. These guys had the most powerful telescope on Earth, and they were penetrating to the farthest reaches of the universe, and they were co-existing with this other world where people believed in flying saucers. People believed you could flag one down and catch a ride to Mars. It was fun combining those things, especially when I discovered that Hubble was a close friend of Aldous Huxley in those days. So these three worlds -- the literary world, the scientific world, and the crank UFO world -- all cross paths, and I enjoyed writing that.

But I'm not a believer. I like to think of myself as an enlightened skeptic. As soon as somebody shows me the crashed spaceship or the digital implant -- some evidence that convinces me -- I will apologize to everyone for my skepticism and embrace the faith. But I don't see any reason to do that at the moment.

CD: What do you see as the future of SF?

RCW: I think the best thing about SF right now is that we can't answer that question. I think we're moving into a really interesting period for SF. We passed through a period when the popular vision of the future was something dark -- a lot of dripping pipes. The flickering-florescent-tube future is just about passé now. We're moving into a new century, and I think people are curious about the future. And I think curiosity about the future is one of the prime motivators of SF. But there's something nebulous about it now -- we don't really know. We know change is coming -- the new century isn't going to be like the last century. The new century will be as full of surprises as the last century was, but we can't pin them down. The old apocalyptic future doesn't seem right. I'm not saying we're going to have a rosy future, but the Mad Max future doesn't seem to be in the cards either. So I think there's a growing excitement about it, and I think we're going to see some really interesting stuff happening in SF. And the best thing is that I can't predict what it is.

CD: What's SF good for?

RCW: James Brown said absolutely nothing. Sometimes I think one of the virtues of SF is that it isn't good for much of anything. We spent decades trying to justify it -- you can read articles from the 20s onward, Gernsback editorials talking about how this may seem trivial but we're actually training the youth in the uses of technology. We're adjusting people to future shock. We're looking forward so we can adapt to the future. All these things are rationalizations. SF is for satisfying your curiosity, for stimulating your imagination. That can be a trivial thing to do, but it can be an important thing too. I don't like giving it a literary purpose because it becomes prescriptive. If I decide what SF is good for, it implies SF that doesn't perform this task -- whatever we decide this task is at any given moment -- is essentially trivial and bad. Whether that task is literary or pragmatic I think it's the wrong genre to be putting these cages around. I think our purpose is to sit outside the other genres and to make up our own purposes, and to be both trivial and profound.

Last modified: July 21, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by Robert Charles Wilson

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #7 | Interviews