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A Conversation With Jack Williamson
An interview with Jayme Lynn Blaschke
January 1999

Jack Williamson
Jack Williamson
Jack Williamson was born on April 29, 1908, in Bisbee, Arizona Territory. His first publication was "The Metal Man" which appeared in Amazing, November 1928, and his first novel, The Legion of Space, published by Fantasy Press in 1947 (which, in turn was a reprint of the serial from Astounding, August-September 1934.) Jack Williamson's awards include a Hugo for Wonder's Child, the Best Non-Fiction Book in 1985; a Nebula Award Grand Master in 1976; and a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1994. He served as SFWA President in 1977-1978. Jack Williamson was first to produce a story about anti-matter ("Collision Orbit," Astounding, July 1941).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Silicon Dagger
SF Site Review: The Black Sun

The Silicon Dagger
The Black Sun

Few writers can approach the stature of Jack Williamson, a man who's career spans eight decades. A contemporary of John W. Campbell, Jr., and Robert Heinlein, Williamson has set the standard for the genre with such works as The Humanoids, Brother to Demons, Brother to Gods and The Legion of Time. Named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1975, Williamson continues to produce thought-provoking work, with his most recent book, Silicon Dagger, published in late 1998.

Silicon Dagger is your 52nd novel. The book's themes -- right-wing extremists and militia movements -- are something of a departure for you. This is not the type of book you've become known for.

Yes, it's less science fictional, because it's closer to the present time, and present-day problems.

What made you decide to take on these ideas?
I voted Libertarian in the last couple of elections just as a sort of protest vote, because I wasn't very happy with the Republicans and the Democrats and Ross Perot. The idea was really touched off by the Oklahoma City bombing, Ruby Ridge and Waco, the Texas independence movement. It so concerned me about the future stability of the country. In the story, a group of malcontents in a Kentucky county declare their independence and defend it. Then their goal is to set up sort of an island of refuge for democracy and freedom and culture in a world that looks about to break up.

That's a scenario that's all too real in the United States these days. What's your own personal opinion of these groups?
Well, I can sympathize with the desire for freedom and independence and freedom from excessive government regulation. On the other hand, our survival depends on an organized, functioning social system, and most of them have programs that would break it up. I'm a spectator rather than a participant. That process to me is fascinating and rather alarming. I can see the need for an island of refuge. The idea is not entirely new. Many years a go I wrote a Startling Stories novel called The Fortress of Utopia that has much the same theme. Not a very good novel, I'm afraid. It's never been reprinted, but the idea appeals to me.

What were you able to do in The Silicon Dagger, written in the 90s, that you weren't able to in The Fortress of Utopia, written in the 30s?
This one is closer to reality. That one was set in the future, and hastily written for half a cent a word without any real inspiration. I was trying to make a living as a pulp writer and writing anything I could sell, even for half a cent.

Why do you think all these extremist groups, these militia groups, are popping up now? It's only been the last five, ten years where they've started gaining attention.
Well, my theory in the novel is that all this is a result of the information revolution. In fact, the title briefly means that information technology is a silicon dagger, (threatening) the survival of all the old authorities. There's an element of truth there. Copy machines and computers, radio and TV and such media inform populations under dictatorships, and spread discontent and awareness of something better. They undermine the social propaganda machines. It's a complicated idea, and I don't understand all the ramifications of it. Nobody does. It's hard to know where we're headed, but we're going somewhere.

At the forefront of the information revolution was the cyberpunk movement, but for the most part it concerned itself more with technological ramifications. Content was largely ignored.
I was a fascinated reader of Gibson's Neuromancer, and I used to be a fascinated reader of The Black Mask mystery stories of the late 20s and early 30s by Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. What Gibson did was to translate these into a modern setting. They both feature lone wolf heroes in conflict with corrupt authority. In those early novels the hero was a white knight, but Gibson's are all victims of the information revolution, of change, of sophisticated technological progress controlled by big capital groups, corporations and so forth. They're motivated by greed more than anything else. And of course, Chandler was a stylist, and Gibson is a stylist I admire. Gibson just jumped the genre into the future, more on the basis of intuition, I think, than on any sociological speculation. I think he wrote the book on a typewriter and not on a computer.

Who are some current writers out there that you're impressed with?
I don't keep up with them well at all. I taught Gibson's three cyberpunk novels with great admiration, but when I'm working on a story of my own, it's difficult to get involved with anybody else's. Another novel I taught and enjoyed was Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I think that's really magnificent.

Do you still teach?
Yes, at Eastern New Mexico University. I was on the regular faculty there for close to 20 years. I retired in 77 officially, but I've been teaching a course with a friend, Dr. Patrice Caldwell -- team teaching it -- every spring for about 10 years, alternating between creative writing and science fiction, which I still enjoy.

Let's jump back the other way. Who are some older writers who aren't read as much as they probably should be anymore?
H.G. Wells is the writer I feel shaped modern science fiction. He had studied biology under Thomas Henry Huxley, who was Darwin's chief spokesman. That gave him -- he understood evolution, which gave him a handle on change and the future. Which was something new to the field and an essential part of science fiction. In science fiction, we explore the impacts of technological change. If you look at The Time Machine, most of Wells' work, in fact, that's what he was doing, looking at history in terms of evolutionary change. He wrote a little book called The Discovery of the Future that was the beginning of futurology. He did his best writing, however, before he got too much interested in intellectual approaches to it. The Sleeper Wakes has too much serious extrapolation to be a good novel. The earlier novels, where his imagination went freely, are his really great works. Later, I was influenced by John Campbell. Heinlein was a good friend of mine, a man I admired greatly. He's the Great American science fiction writer. When I got into the field, you could still read everything that everybody wrote, and you knew the majority of people who were writing. Nowadays, so many writers are doing fine work for legions of readers, that it's impossible to keep up with them all.

You've been writing longer than most people out there have been reading. As a writer, what have you found to be the advantages of age?
I've been more concerned with the disadvantages! I've always been in competition with younger, brighter, better-educated people, and scrambling to keep up. On the other hand, I've been fascinated with science, the revelation of the universe -- the large universe and the small universe, the evolution of life and it's possible future. So there's always a new realm of speculation beyond what we know, or think we know. I attempt to keep up as best I can. Nobody can really be a Renaissance Man anymore, but I wish I were. And there are new, able writers coming on the field all the time. I read book reviews and look at books and now and then read one, but not very many of them.

You've seen everything from the first satellite launch to the cloning of a sheep, everything in between as well as before and after. Is it harder now to keep up with science today than it was 50 years ago?
I'm not sure. There was always a lot to learn. To me, it's a sort of a mystery story. The universe, as we see it, is a great riddle we'd like to understand. Every issue of Science or Scientific American or Science News or Astronomy or whatever is just another chapter of the story. I'm fascinated to read it. So it is recreation, what I love to do, to keep up as best I can with what we know about it, and what we can anticipate. It's an exciting time to be alive. I wish I could live another century.

In today's reality, it's possible for a writer to write something that's cutting edge, but by the time the story sees print, it's already been done in a laboratory. Do you consider the rapid pace of scientific advance a hindrance to good science fiction writing or an asset?
Good science fiction is the result of... let's say a strong personal reaction to what's happening. If it's a good story, it'll have character values and thematic interest and narrative drive that will be there after the science changes. Too, cosmology and many other sciences are becoming too recondite for the average reader to understand. Science has become indistinguishable from magic in the popular mind. Actually, the science background and relevance to truth is just a bridge into the story, or a springboard. Once you get it going, what matters are the characters, the plot, the philosophy behind the theme, the characters as reacting human beings. So, if the story's valid to human nature, it doesn't really matter all that much in the long run if the science is out-dated.

Speaking of which, one of your more popular works is the series you co-wrote with Fred Pohl, The Starchild Trilogy. Those books had more big ideas crammed into them than most books written before or since. You had sentient stars, a steady-state universe -- the list just goes on and on.
I loved the steady-state universe. It had no limits -- no beginning, no end. You didn't have to worry about origins. I loved the idea of continuous creation, the reefs of space and possible biological evolution. It was great fun to do. We had the organ bank, organ transplants. I started working on the original novel in the early 40s. I wrote a draft myself before Fred got to work on it. We did beat Dr. Christian Bernard by about four years for the first heart transplant, but I was worried for a while we were going to be outrun by science. The books have sold a lot of copies since we've had to give up the steady-state universe, so that didn't kill the value of it. Even now, I'd be glad if somebody came up with an alternative explanation to the Big Bang, though it seems to be on firmer ground every day.

As a writer, what are you capable of doing today that you weren't when you started out?
I hope I'm a better writer. I know more tricks of the trade. I know more science. But the wonderful thing about science fiction has always been that there were no taboos. You could say anything you wanted to say, so long as you embodied it in an entertaining story. Or perhaps that may not be strictly true. I heard Heinlein say once that Campbell didn't want him to do mature sexual relationships, though when you look at Heinlein's later work, you may wonder what is a mature sexual relationship.

Any examples where you've used this freedom science fiction offers?
I've never been much of a revolutionary. I've very seldom wanted to break any taboos. I've just felt total freedom to say anything I wanted.

What are the rewards of writing?
To me, I guess the greatest reward is the satisfaction of creating. Shaping a story and getting it on paper in the form it ought to have. I've never written bestsellers or made a great deal of money at it, but when I look back, I've been able to spend most of my life doing something I enjoyed. When I look at people around me, many of them are working at dollar jobs, at jobs they hate, jobs that bore them. For me it's been largely rewarding. Of course, writing is hard work, sitting at the typewriter or computer and pounding the keys. For many years as a pulp writer trying desperately to make a living, I worked on stories that were ill-conceived or failed to say something I wanted to say and came to no good end. In recent years I've had more freedom to write only what I wanted to write. A story doesn't work unless it's something you really believe. The reader won't believe it if you don't; won't be interested if you're not interested. My files are full of abandoned ideas, unfinished stories that didn't work out, because I didn't really care, didn't know enough about the background, or the characters, or what I wanted to say.

Have you ever had a story published, and afterwards wished you could go back and have another crack at it?
I've had stories published that really shouldn't have been published, certainly. Back in those hard times, I wanted to write for the horror magazines, which were new and paying good rates. I wrote The Mark of the Monster, which was too heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. It was rejected by the horror magazines. I sent it to Weird Tales. They accepted it and published it with a cover picture. The readers panned it heavily. I wish that it had never seen the light of day.

What's a typical day for you?
In these latter days, I don't have a great deal of strength. If my blood pressure's low, I'll have a nap after breakfast. I'll work for an hour or so, check the mail, work until lunch time, have a nap, and work for a while in the afternoon. Then maybe I'll take a walk and have another spell of work if I'm able, but it only comes to three or four hours a day of actual working. But I solve story problems while I'm away from the machines. When the story's really working, you can be living it 24 hours a day almost.

What are your interests outside of writing?
Astronomy more than anything else. I've always tried to keep up with theory and space exploration. I got to attend the reports from Voyager at NASA, which was a fascinating exercise. I learned about the Oort Cloud and wrote a couple of novels set there. My wife and I used to travel every summer while I was teaching.

Where are some places you've travelled to?
I've been to all the continents, if I can include a flight over the Antarctic Circle from Argentina. The most exciting places I've visited are China and Russia. I've been to each one of them three times. The cultures, the museums, the history, the people are exciting to see. It was almost a science fictional exploration of a different culture. I've seen a lot of Europe and Egypt, the Near East. I've been to India. I'd like to travel more, but the years are catching up with me.

If you hadn't been a writer, what would you have been?
I thought I wanted to be a scientist when I started college. I majored in chemistry and took a couple of years of physics and math. I was offered a student assistantship in chemistry. So if I'd stayed, I might have been a chemist. But by then I was paying for my college experience with my writing. I'd have had to find some other way of financing my education. I'd grown up on a farm and ranch, and the one thing I was sure of was that I didn't want to be a rancher or a farmer.

What kind of ranch was it?
It was a very small operation. My dad homesteaded in Eastern New Mexico in 1916 after the good land had been claimed. We were living below the poverty line, struggling for survival. I'm glad I didn't become a farmer or rancher.

New Mexico doesn't have the best range land, especially up in the high desert. It must've made for some hard times.
Some years it didn't rain. The soil we were trying to farm was sandy. Sand storms would blow the sand enough to cover up a young crop. Farm prices were low. In 1918, when I was 10 years old, it didn't rain. My dad had a few cattle, and we drove them around eastern New Mexico and into Texas looking for grass for them. I went along and drove the chuck wagon. I remember at the end of summer we shipped them to Kansas City. My dad went along and I remember waving him good-bye and wondering if I would ever see him again. He sold the cattle and sent the money back to the bank. He worked in the harvest to make money for railway fare to Arizona. He worked there in a copper mine to make money to keep the family alive. That was how we survived.

I imagine the high-tech farming and ranching operations of today are beyond even most science fiction speculations of that time.
Yes, agriculture has become a high-tech activity itself. My brother's still at it. Our original homestead is now part of a larger ranch. He's an expert on genetics and animal feeding, artificial insemination and ranch management.

What do you hope to be remembered for 100 years from now?
I'm not sure I'll be remembered at all. I pioneered some of the science fictional themes such as anti-matter. I invented the term "terraforming," which seems to have gotten into the language -- at least into the dictionary. I was the first person to use the term "genetic engineering" so far as Webster's Collegiate Dictionary knows. I sent them tear sheets from Dragon's Island, and they agreed to date the first use back to 1951. Of course, in 100 years I don't know what will be remembered.

I hadn't realized you were responsible for "terraforming." Everyone's obviously looking at Mars as a candidate. Do you think that's ever going to become a reality?
Well, I've written a Mars novel, Beachhead, but when you consider all the parts of the Earth that might be terraformed, it seems like a long haul to Mars. A lot of New Mexico could stand some weather modification. We human beings are part of a very complicated biological system that we don't entirely understand. I'm not sure how successfully all of it can be translated to other environments, so I'm not as enthusiastic about terraforming as I was in 1942.

(This interview first appeared in the January 1999 issue of Interzone.)

Copyright © 2000 by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy short fiction and has several in-progress novels lying around in various stages of decay. His non-fiction articles and interviews have seen publication in the U.S., Britain and Australia. His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html


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