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Interview: William Alexander on “The Only Known Law”

– “The Only Known Law” is a hard SF story about alien contact, but it’s also a story about two scientists who love each other. What inspired you to juxtapose those two things against each other?

I read somewhere that Ursula K. Le Guin’s single-word summary of her whole oeuvre is “marriage.” Her novels don’t all end in weddings like Shakespearean comedies, but over and over again, in different worlds and contexts, very different characters come to understand each other.

“The Only Known Law” is about a literal and fairly heteronormative marriage between two human people, but I also had Le Guin’s expansive sense of the word rolling around in my head. A story of successful First Contact is a kind of romance, a struggle for connection and understanding.


– I understand that you wrote “The Only Known Law” while you were a student at Clarion. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Clarion was a messy and magnificent experience. I wrote this story — my first science fiction story — because I felt challenged to do so. My brain usually defaults to fantasy, but I noticed a slight, affectionate snobbery from dedicated SF writers. They implied that fantasy was fluff, and that SF requires the real chops. Untrue. I don’t believe it. But that goading still worked on my sense of pride. So I set out to prove I could write the stuff myself.

My first SF novel comes out later this year, so maybe I’m still responding to that dare.


– Did the story change at all between the version you wrote at Clarion and the one that appears in F&SF?

Not very much. I trunked the story for several years. Then I found it, gave it a new polish, and tried to make Nicolao a bit less of a douche. But the bones of the story are all the same.

Goblin Secrets - National Book Award Winner 

– You’re perhaps best known for writing Goblin Secrets, a children’s book which won the National Book Award in 2012. What kind of differences are there between writing books for children and writing stories like this one for adults?

Know thy audience. The difference isn’t censorship, or a readjustment of sophistication. You just keep in mind the kinds of things your audience is likely to care about.

I cut my teeth writing short stories for grownups, but most of my favorites had very young protagonists. I was already drifting toward writing for children before I became consciously aware of the fact.


– Where can readers go to find more of your fiction?

A few short stories are floating around online, archived at Apex and Zahir. For more about my books, visit


– “The Only Known Law” by William Alexander appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.


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