[An interview from my old blog in 2006, reposted 26 April 2010]
Sean Williams is a New York Times best selling science fiction author who lives in Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of almost seventy published short stories and twenty-seven novels, including the Books of the Catalcysm and (with Shane Dix) the bestselling Evergence, Orphans and Geodesica series. He has co-written three books in the Star Wars: New Jedi Order series and is a multiple recipient of both the Ditmar and Aurealis Awards.
[Note: the following interview may contain spoilers. – Space Archaeology]
Space Archaeology: You’ve written novels at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the prevalence of extraterrestrial intelligence. At one end is the Star Wars universe, with its abundance of interacting species, and at the other end is Geodesica, where intelligences are separated by vast gulfs of space and time. Where on this spectrum do your own views lie, and which is more fun to write?
Sean Williams: I’m pretty sure that aliens are “out there” right now, but that they might be too far away or too unlike us for us ever to make meaningful contact with them. While I’d like nothing better than to be proven wrong (especially during my lifetime!) I think the odds are against it. Still, I find it a very creative mine to tap. The Evergence series contains just one alien species, and the reader never sees them face to face; the aliens in Orphans are very strange indeed (and in fact come from a completely different universe, so my premise remains intact); and my new series, Astropolis, starts off in a galaxy once again inhabited only by speciated humans. I’ll probably avoid the wishful thinking of alien contact–indeed, utter alien fecundity–of traditional space opera, except for the odd Star Wars novel, until I run out of games to play with humans alone.
Space Archaeology: A setting without aliens needn’t lack for a diversity of intelligences. The Geodesica milieu has a hierarchy of post-human beings stretching up to inconceivable heights of intelligence and ability. How do you get inside characters who are smarter than you, or vastly different in their mental structure?
Sean Williams: It’s tricky, that’s for sure. I think the trick lies in finding the right perspective on a deeply post-human society in order to unpack it for a contemporary audience. I couldn’t find a way to show the vastly evolved being that was Melilah Award in Geodesica: Descent, so the reader only sees her at her most human, or at least those facets of her that we would recognise as being like us. In Evergence, the characters were mostly people choosing to look like us, and it’s the same in Astropolis, although the multi-faceted nature of humanity is important later in the story; Orphans charts a similar course. Nothing turns me off faster in far-future SF than the assumption that people will still look like us, or that vastly evolved human minds will still think like us–unless they choose to do so. And if they do so choose, there has to be a clear reason for it. If that’s not there, the world- and character-building immediately unravels for me.
Space Archaeology: Your works often explore future human speciation. What are the benefits of speciation? And the risks? How optimistic are you that humans can evolve beyond xenophobia, for instance?
Sean Williams: My gut feeling is that xenophobia is only a human condition so long as that condition is defined by the contents of our genome and our environment. Change both, and maybe xenophobia as we know it will go away. That could be one benefit of speciation. Another would be the ability to inhabit environments much more hostile than earth-like biospheres. Why build complex and failure-prone habitats on the Moon when we could change ourselves to fit the conditions found there? Ditto for Mars, Jupiter, the surface of the Sun, the Van Allen Belt, deep space, and for travel near light-speed. Different sorts of humans could easily occupy all these spaces–and time-scales too, since a being existing continuously across thousands or millions of years will be fundamentally different to us. The parallel with natural ecosystems is clear: the more variety exists in the ecosystem, the more resilient the ecosystem is to external (or in our case, internal) change. If we’re going to live on the time-scales I imagine, I truly see no other option open to us.
There risk of xenophobia worsening and different castes fighting over what it means to be human remains real, for all my optimism. That was definitely the angle I took in Geodesica. I mean, in a far-flung interstellar empire, wars are more likely to be fought over information or naming rights than actual resources. What could be more important than being human?
Space Archaeology: You’ve written about the definition of science fiction (http://www.seanwilliams.com/Excerpts/SF%20essay.htm). As a writer of harder SF, how do you deal with the tension between the ‘science’ and ‘fiction’ aspects of the genre?
Sean Williams: I always knew that old essay would come back to haunt me! It’s a difficult issue, and one I continue to struggle with. For instance: how does a writer balance infodumps against character development or style? And: to what extent can a writer sacrifice the nuts and bolts of world-building in the service of story? There’s no right answer to either question. But if there was, I probably would’ve lost interest a long time ago.
Of course, one of the means I employ to deal with that tension is to write fantasy, which operates in a slightly different way. Balancing the science vs fiction and science vs fantasy make me feel like a bit of a circus juggler at times, but it does keep me on my toes.
Space Archaeology: There’s a marked difference between the two novels (acts?) in the Geodesica sequence. Ascent is largely concerned with the siege of Bedlam, and events in a single stellar system, then Descent explodes with speculative visions of cosmology, human evolution and technology over a million years of future history. What motivated this change, and was it planned from the beginning, or did it evolve during writing?
Sean Williams: I’d always planned each book to be different. Geodesica: Ascent possesses a more classical structure, following the fates of estranged lovers Melilah and Eogan as they are forced back into each other’s orbit by a mysterious artefact–which, although we don’t get to see it at all, really, until the next book, has profound effects on the politics of the region, and ultimately on the fate of Melilah’s home. It’s about relationships and communication, in other words, and the dreadful consequences that keeping secrets can have at all levels of human society.
Geodesica: Descent, on the other hand, is about loss, and consciously echoes the so-called Five Stages of Grief, which are often described as denial, resentment, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They’re what Melilah has to go through in order to deal with Eogan and the loss of her home; similarly, Isaac Deangelis must come to terms with the part he has played in recent and future events, and that involves a deep-seated sense of loss on his part. The structure was partly different for those reasons, but also because each of this novel’s three threads are moving forward at different temporal rates, thereby echoing the different rates at which different types of humanity existed.
Space Archaeology: Speaking of time, where did you get the idea for Coevality? It’s a fascinating concept, but archaeologists won’t thank you for making their work more difficult
Sean Williams: Yes, sorry about that. A notion similar to Coevality raises its head under another name (achronism) in an Astropolis side-project that I’m working on at the moment, so it’s something I’m still pondering. Partly because I rail against the assumption that time-travel would mean the end of history, just as in Geodesica: Ascent I challenged the assumption that privacy was essential to humanity’s well-being. I think it’s important to examine such assumptions, to unpick them and see what lies beneath them. Underneath resistance to Coevality might be the same fear that strikes some people when they consider the possibility of extreme longevity: that everything will be the same, unchanging forever. That’s a bit like saying that, by extending the freeway system across America, every city will become the same. There are homogenising forces, yes, but variety remains overwhelmingly in evidence. Why should time be any different? A million years of history is a vast canvass, especially when combined with mastery of the galaxy. It’d take a very big mind indeed to experience under those conditions anything like the boredom we decry in modern shopping centres, or mainstream television, or even occasionally on the printed page.
Space Archaeology: The novels are strongly xenoarchaeological in their content, with the study of the Mizar Occlusion and Geodesica itself, as well as tantalising glimpses of other alien relics. Are you a fan of ‘alien archaeology’ stories, and did any particularly influence you and Shane in writing Geodesica?
Sean Williams: Oh, we’re both big fans of this sub-genre, hence our constant referring to it in our books. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama was a key text for Echoes of Earth. Other texts I’ve particularly enjoyed include Fred Pohl’s Gateway, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Al Reynolds’ Revelation Space and Rob Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow. There might be more I’ll think of as soon as I finish this paragraph.
When I was young, I really wanted to be an archaeologist, so by writing stories that tap into that feeling, I’m getting the best of both worlds.
Space Archaeology: I’ve noticed the term ‘xenarchaeology’ in your writing. Who do I blame for the missing ‘o’ in xeno, you or Shane Dix?
Sean Williams: That’s me, and it’s deliberate. My dictionary (Collins) says that the prefix “xeno-” should be “xen-” before a vowel. History (or perhaps an alien xen(o)archaeologist) will decide who was right.
Space Archaeology: Ooh. Good point about elision in forming Greek compound words. It’d be the same for ‘exarchaeology’ as well. I’ll continue to use the more common, but technically incorrect, construction but bow to your superior pedantry
Sean Williams: Ha! Mine is a hollow victory, then.
Space Archaeology: It seems a corollary of the Drake equation that there must be more extinct alien cultures than living ones. But apart from scientific plausibility, what are the attractions of xenoarchaeological stories for a writer?
Sean Williams: It’s two for the price of one, for me, anyway: the alien and the very old. That’s what draws me to these stories. It’s also easier, I suppose, for a writer to depict a dead culture, a static culture, than a living, changing one. We can draw it out, take our time getting to the understanding of the alien, if that’s possible at all, rather than jumping in feet first. We can’t always take the easy ways out, of course, but the attraction is there.
Space Archaeology: I imagine that, given your anthropological focus, you’d also like having the aliens ‘off stage’ as it were, so you could focus on human response to their discoveries.
Sean Williams: Yes, that’s true too. I do love that kind of story, and particularly enjoyed stirring up the ants-nest in Geodesica: Ascent just this way. So much fuss about an artefact that is never once seen until the final page! We’re an excitable bunch, we humans.
Space Archaeology: Have either of you had any training or experience in archaeology? Did you draw on any particular non-fiction sources, from any discipline, in creating the artefacts in these novels?
Sean Williams: I’m the science guy of the partnership, so if there are any errors, they’re all mine. Basically, I absorb a lot of information at a relatively steady rate, from magazines, people and the Internet, rather than bingeing on intensive research, because I find I get sleepy if I spend too long in libraries. Passive research, in other words, paying particular attention to astronomy, particle physics and archaeology. That said, there have been times when I had to knuckle down and focus on particular areas of future projects, to make sure they were right before writing a single word. The Orphans series in particular took a lot of work, and Astropolis has involved a great deal of preparatory thought too. It’s not confined solely to SF, either. My fantasy novel The Crooked Letter combines years of research into theology and science in an attempt to create a religion that meshes well with both. So I guess the short answer is that it varies with each book.
Space Archaeology: The excerpt we’ve seen of Saturn Returns (http://www.wordfire.onestop.net/Writing_S_Williams.html) promises more exploration of human potential, the deep future, and enigmatic artefacts. Do you see your writing moving in a particular direction across the series?
Sean Williams: I can tell you that the first novel is a fast-paced picaresque journey through the ruins of a galactic empire (lots archaeology there) with a structure vaguely reminiscent of the classic Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer. The second novel concerns the middle years of a new empire, one that’s trying to fill the shoes of the one that’s gone (expect expeditions to contact old and deeply isolated post-human minds for reasons I won’t go into here). The third book is a chase through various environments, one of them based loosely on the Twentieth Century–which certainly qualifies as an archaeological experience for those inhabiting that future.
In general, I’m heading in several directions at once. As well as these novels and a series of fantasy books for kids, I’m mucking around with a near-future technothriller (a la Michael Crichton) and even a “straight” forensic crime novel. So technology remains important, even if the focus is much closer to home. The study of people, as always, is the main point, although I do love shiny toys of SF…
[Saturn Returns will be published in the United States by Ace on April 24, 2007 and in Australia and the UK in July.]