Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Words Come Alive

An Interview With Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams, American author who writes mostly in the world of science fiction, usually takes readers into a hard SF area, but always brings the vast scope of social interactions into his work.

Of his many series, the examples of Metropolitan and Dread Empire’s Fall show such an ability. While the protagonist in Metropolitan faces a source of plasm that operates as an energy supply for multitudes, the story hinges on how people vie for power to distribute the resource and how people can be corrupted by such power.

In the Dread series, Williams hard SF is on display as starship personnel need to use blood meds to cope with the force of gravity during deacceleration. He presents stable wormholes because power stations exist that distribute energy in the opposite direction of the incoming ship so the hole remains stable. Yet the course of a revolt occurs because of personal and social forces that divide interests or look down on certain castes.

This interview dealing with the novel, The Rift, asks Williams to comment on such social forces. While The Rift fits into the present world as a disaster novel, the scope unveils the various factions and forces at work in a society that can either hold that society together or threaten its survival.

Williams prompt to write The Rift began when he discovered the New Madrid faultline, a time bomb of a tectonic plate waiting to erupt into an 8.9 seismic quake. That fault stretches below New Madrid, Missouri, and crosses into parts of Tennessee and Arkansas. The New Madrid fault system was responsible for a major quake in 1811–1812 and may have the potential to disrupt the flow of the Mississippi River.

The Rift focuses on Jason, a white teenager and an African-American man on their journey down the Mississippi. Yet the canvas shows readers how fragile society’s parts connect to protect people. With communication cut, the restoration becomes an engineering problem while others crave a chance to profit from the misfortune. Some, like the Reverend Frankland, think that the end has come and souls are more important to save than lives. Sheriff Omar Paxton sees a chance to wipe out people who look different from the norm. Williams shows the obstacles in putting the pieces of society back together again.

Daring To Ask: Walter Jon Williams, thanks for taking the time to answer questions about the techniques and concepts within the craft of writing about society. I’m sure your input will be appreciated by fans of fiction and those who see its application in the real world.

Before turning to specific areas, does the breakdown of society in The Rift strike you as being similar to the possible breakdown that could have arrived with 9/11?

WJW: More like Katrina, a ongoing systemic tragedy that goes on for weeks and months and possibly years. 9/11 was a horrible tragedy, but it was over within a few hours, the damage was confined to a small area, and society was disrupted but did not break down. New York is very much intact. But after the double-punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana was changed forever.

Daring To Ask: Even though the situation was different in the TV series Jericho, do you find the attempts at reconstruction of society as facing similar social obstacles?

WJW: I haven't seen Jericho, so I can't comment.

Daring To Ask: How would you characterize the breakdown of society in The Rift — mainly from which of the following —
a) local authority doesn’t have to be responsible to regional or national authority
b) social norms disappear
c) resources disappear, forcing people to think in survival mode

WSW: All three, plus shock, plus mental inflexibility. Shock prevents people from thinking clearly or understanding the scope of their problem. Mental inflexibility means that people are inclined to fall into old ways of thinking without considering whether those ways are relevant to the new situation.

Daring To Ask: Your cast of characters arises so you can describe the breath of the world you paint in the novel. What is the starting point to decide on where you want to have the characters? The geographic implications, ie Memphis, the social setting, ie Louisiana, the turf professionalism, ie military vs engineering?

WSW: I wanted to cover as much of the disaster as possible, and to do that I needed a lot of eyes. I chose my characters mainly for what their situation could bring to the story. I wanted engineers who could comprehend the scope of the catastrophe and act rationally, and I wanted people whose experience and preconceptions would produce different reactions. I wanted people who were right in the middle of it, forced to react to what was happening around them, not people detached and dispassionate.

Daring To Ask: Your protagonist represented a coming of age youth rather than a professional whose task was to reconstruct the destruction. What made you pick that type of person for the protagonist?

WSW: Well, I was looking for Huckleberry Finn. I wanted a reasonably normal, somewhat mischievous character who was young enough to react to the situation without very many preconceptions. I wanted a character who, through his own naivete, would recognize the madness that was springing up around him, and know to react against it.

Daring To Ask: Does that selection determine the focus of the novel?

WSW: I knew from the start that I wanted to do a modern Huckleberry Finn. Twain sent his character down the river to examine the follies and madness of his age, and I sent my character down the river for much the same reason.

Daring To Ask: By showing the whole canvas of the disaster, you could face the problem of moving into tangents far afield from the protagonist. How do you avoid that?

WSW: Actually there were some characters I wanted to write about who were cut for reasons of length. I wanted to do a character trapped in a hospital bed during the earthquake, and I wanted to do another from the point of a man trapped in the rubble of a hotel, slowly developing a relationship with the female rescue worker he can only here as a voice on the telephone.

I have to say that the best way to keep the narrative from wandering away into parts unknown is to exceed your word budget by 100,000. All the extraneous material will just vanish as you sweat to write about the important stuff.

Daring To Ask: Your canvas touched the lives of people to show how energy, food and supplies were affected by the disaster. That canvas showed multiple social groups and political factions. What advice do you give writers when they design a worldbuilding plan for such an event so they don’t ignore a key aspect of that canvas? Is there a checklist of factors to consider in the storyboarding plan?

WSW: You can start with simple items and trace the links required to bring that item to you and to keep it useful. With table grapes, you can think of the chain from the grower to the wholesaler, from the wholesaler to the market, from the market to you, and the electricity necessary to power the refrigeration that keeps the grapes wholesome. If any link in the chain is broken, you won't get grapes.

For "grapes," you can substitute any other item your character possesses. Food, furniture, clean water, appliances, vehicles.

I was also aided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan for next New Madrid Earthquake, which the Corps of Engineers kindly shared with me. They thought of all sorts of scary things that I didn't.

Daring To Ask: How does the level of social tension prior to the disaster affect the degree of social breakdown after the disaster? For example, the level of tension in the South has risen post healthcare passage and in part due to the rise of Tea Parties. Would a higher level of tension from that mean that the degree of breakdown in a disaster like The Rift would encounter even more of a breakdown?

WSW: Yes, very much. People are inclined to distrust their government until a catastrophe occurs, and the government then becomes their sole resource and they very much want a strong government with unlimited resources.

Currently we have people seriously talking secession and the forming of a second Confederacy. It's a daffy idea bound to lead to hideous tragedy, but if things were sufficiently disrupted, they'd try to do it.

Daring To Ask: What is the level of importance in restoring communication to aid restoration? What tools would have been necessary to help the protagonist, Jessica, or people in the camps to learn about their isolated situation compared to the entire picture?

WSW: Communication is good, but the communication has to involve useful information. If the information that gets out is wrong--- as happened in New Orleans, when people were told to go to the Convention Center, where there was no help for them--- then tragedy could result.

The best thing in an emergency is a functioning cell phone network. In Katrina, thousands of people called for help on their cell phones, but received no help because the cell towers had been blown down by high winds. What is necessary is for the government to mandate cell phones that will network together in the event of a catastrophe, so that messages can be passed along the chain until they reach a functioning tower.

Countless lives could be saved if this were instituted worldwide.

Daring To Ask: Your book came out pre-Katrina and the Iraqi reconstruction. Would responders who studied the book have been able to avoid some problems that New Orleans or Iraq faced in restoring the flow of life?

WJW: Katrina, certainly. The Iraqi reconstruction dealt with a issues that weren't a part of the novel.

What occurred to me after Katrina was that I had been far too optimistic in writing the novel. In my book, the atrocities were deliberate actions by evil men. When Katrina happened, the default response by those in authority was to kill a large number of black people and then blame the victims. This was a decision made by everyone from the President on down, and included the city's black mayor and his staff. This reaction was such a part of the culture that they didn't even have to think about it.

Daring To Ask: Your Rev. Frankland or Omar Paxton symbolize fundamentalists who drive on the fears of others and set up barriers. Would these characters have found similar ones in the breakdown of Iraqi life as the country struggled to reform? How would the Iraqi form of fundamentalism show a different face from that of Frankland?

WJW: If Frankland had armed his followers and told them to kill anyone who didn't belong to their church, I think this would approximate the situation in Iraq. Fortunately for the characters in the novel, Frankland was a little more ecumenical than that--- although, of course, he was still crazy.

Daring To Ask: What concepts did The Rift allow you to explore that differs from the worlds of The Praxis or City on Fire?

WSW: The big difference was that I was writing about real places, and the characters I put in those places had to be plausible. When people traveled from one place to another, they had to travel over a real map.

When I write SF or fantasy, I get to make a lot of it up.

Reality is harder!

Daring To Ask: You have played role games. In a way, your worldbuilding for The Rift allowed you to set up scenarios that went beyond usual research. What developments in the scenarios surprised you in how a character would act, or a situation would complicate reconstruction efforts?

WJW: As part of the research for the novel, I drove the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis. I visited the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Station near Port Gibson, and I asked my guide how the station remained moored in the Delta where there was no bedrock for it to sit on.

The answer resulted in the sections of the book featuring Larry, the nuclear engineer.

Daring To Ask: The role playing games on videos offer users a different perspective — they are in control of the action rather than read from an author’s presentation. Does this mean that authors should try to develop some aspect of interactivity in novels, or are we speaking about two entirely separate audiences?

WJW: I deal with this very issue in my new novel, THIS IS NOT A GAME (Orbit, 2009), written about a game that begins to cross dangerously into reality. I can't really sum up my thoughts in such a short space, so I can only urge you to read my novel!

Daring To Ask: Can authors from novels devise more complex role games with three dimensional characters or would that change the control issue that users enjoy?

WJW: I like to think of my RPG characters as reasonably three-dimensional, whether player-characters or NPCs, so the answer would seem to be yes.

Image courtesy of walterjonwilliams.net

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, Tom/Ham. I've not read his work before, but this sounds interesting. I especially like the modern-day Huck Finn idea. I'll have to check it out.