Author Robert Charles Wilson was kind enough to answer a variety of questions about his recent work, upcoming projects, and the science fiction genre more generally. His responses reflect his profound love of reading and writing. I trust that you will find his candour and wit as impressive as I did. A review of Vortex will be posted on the site soon.
JO: Robert, can you discuss some of the particular challenges of writing a trilogy, versus a stand-alone novel?
RCW: I’m not even sure the Spin books are a real trilogy. I tend to think of Spin as a stand-alone novel with two sequels, so I’m not sure I’m well-positioned to answer that question. I admire writers who can construct vast story arcs and sustain them over several volumes—I’m just not one of those writers.
JO: Who have been some of your greatest influences as a writer?
RCW: As a science fiction writer, I would have to say H.G. Wells. He invented most of our tropes—every alien-invasion story is essentially a footnote to War of the Worlds. John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, for instance, devotes a chapter to what is basically a dialogue with Wells on the subject of how one sentient species might displace another. More generally, I love writers who can place the fantastic in the context of the ordinary. Not just fantasy and science fiction writers, but fabulists like Steven Millhauser. Ray Bradbury did this spectacularly in his early fiction: making the prosaic seem marvelous and the marvelous seem prosaic. Sometimes I think the real virtue of science fiction is not that it allows us to imagine new worlds but that it forces us to re-imagine the real world from an unexpected angle.
JO: Did you know where the Spin series was going as you began to write Spin?
RCW: Not exactly. As I said, Spin is a self-contained novel with an open ending. And—as commercially counter-intuitive as this seems—I wanted Axis and Vortex to be different kinds of novels, with different narrative voices and different themes. Vortex takes the story of the alien “Hypotheticals” to its conclusion, but it’s also a novel of identity in many ways. One aspect of the plot is set ten thousand years in the future, when many human communities are either “limbic” or “cortical” democracies, employing different kinds of neural networking to arrive at collective decisions. What does it mean to be an individual when you share a significant part of yourself with a community of others? How much of what we are is authentic and how much is pretense or invention? If we change ourselves neurologically, how responsible are we for acts we committed in the past?
JO: What are some of your most significant sources for researching the science in your books, Robert?
RCW: No specific sources, just a layman’s love of and respect for science in general. I do read Scientific American and New Scientist on a regular basis. Popular science writing is in a kind of golden age, I think. There’s a bumper crop of books out there on astronomy, cosmology, climate change, cutting-edge physics.
JO: Why do you think that at times science fiction as a genre does not get the respect that it so richly deserves from some mainstream readers and critics?
RCW: I’m not sure “respect” is something we ought to be worrying about. I do wish people would recognize that the literature of science fiction is distinct from the visually gorgeous but nitwitted product so often offered as sci-fi in the movies and on television. It would help if we didn’t venerate Hollywood, as if Hollywood had the capacity to bestow legitimacy on the written word. I’m occasionally asked whether Spin will be a movie. I don’t know, but it’s already something better—it’s a fucking book.
JO: Robert, what does writing science fiction allow you to do as you craft a narrative and build characters that another genre might not allow you to do?
RCW: I don’t think science fiction is a better way to craft a narrative or build characters; I do think it’s a unique way to contextualize characters and narratives. We live our lives under the useful illusion that tomorrow will be much like today. Science fiction is an implicit rebuke to that idea. The future is another country: they do things differently there. The only constant is change. Nothing is permanent, not even human nature. Those are big, scary, interesting truths. Science fiction is the literature perfectly placed to explore them.
JO: If you were not a successful author, what might you be doing in another ‘life?’
RCW: Starving in a ditch, perhaps, since I have no other useful skills… When I was young I did a lot of clerical work, mostly in government offices. (For some years I was a transcriptionist for the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which was a great job for an aspiring writer—lots of real human drama there.) If I hadn’t been able to sell fiction I’d probably be lost in the bureaucracy, like Bartleby the Scrivener.
JO: Robert could you give us a shortlist of your favourite novels?
RCW: The trouble is, it wouldn’t be short! I’m a promiscuous reader. I fall in love easily.
JO: I would be curious to know what you are currently reading along with what you may have recently read?
RCW: At the moment I’m reading Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for Americaby David S. Reynolds, a fascinating history of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel and the remarkable influence it had on American history. I also enjoyed T.C. Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done—Boyle is a consistently interesting writer. Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars has some of his strongest work in years. I’m a huge King fan. And I just picked up The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
JO: Following Vortex, what can readers expect from you in the not too distant future, if you care to share?
RCW: I recently contracted to write three new books for Tor—not a trilogy, all stand-alone novels. One is called Burning Paradise, which should be finished by the end of this year. Followed by The Affinities and The Last Year. I’m excited about all three.