Figments (F): Most of your stories are neither dystopian or utopian, but more like something in the middle. Is there a reason you refrain from settling on one or the other extreme?
Robert Charles Wilson (RCW): When has the world ever seen a human culture that was entirely utopian or dystopian? And why would we expect a future human culture, even one vastly more equitable and liberated than our own, to be flawless? The boundary between “better” and “best” (or “bad” and “worst”) is where human drama resides, and that’s what interests me as a novelist.
F: In The Chronoliths, the whole society has to confront the idea of a ruler yet to come and you bring diverse reactions to the story. How do you evaluate the range of reactions to an event? Do you think there could be one big event that would bring us all together or do you have a more negative view of our future?
RCW: That depends on what you mean by “bringing us together.” (Who are “we,” exactly, and what constitutes togetherness?) I’m optimistic enough to believe that an inclusive, diverse, free and equitable human society is at least within the bounds of possibility. I’m not sure what kind of “big event” would help bring that about, however. The moral revulsion against dictatorial authoritarianism that was once an assumed element in civilized political discourse owed a lot to our collective experience of the atrocities of the Second World War – definitely a “big event” — but those memories are fading, and some of the common disdain for authoritarianism seems to be fading along with them. With regard to fictional threats like the appearance of the Chronoliths in that book, I work on the assumption that we would react as wisely and foolishly as we have reacted to analogous threats in the past. History doesn’t promise that the wisest views will prevail. It does give us ample evidence that foolishness is not a negligible force in human affairs.
F: When starting a new story, do you already know the tone you want to set? Is the story you want to tell already intertwined with a message beneath it or does the message come to you later in the process?
RCW: Tone, mood, point of view, plot and theme are obviously interdependent – they talk to each other, certainly when a story is in the planning stages, and even after you think you know how it works. There’s always a certain fluidity, an openness to change. New issues arise in the course of writing, characters think or say things you didn’t anticipate; the story veers in a new direction; a new theme emerges. Which is as it should be. But I like to have a fairly firm grip on a story and its direction before I begin the serious writing. You need to be able to see the road ahead, even if you decide to take a detour.
F: Your stories always emphasize complex, vibrant characters facing events bigger than themselves and trying to get along with their life. What would you recommend to aspirant writers when it comes to drawing characters?
RCW: Keep in mind what your character wants and fears, what he or she knows and doesn’t know. We all interpret the events of our life in the light of our unique experience, and so should the characters in a successful story. In science fiction, a character’s unique relationship to some large or surprising event helps define both the character and the fantastic element. It gives speculation a tactile reality. It embodies what would otherwise be mere ideas. It gives us something to touch, and a vicarious hand to touch it with.
F: Can you tell us what brought you to speculative fiction? As a writer, what does it help you achieve?
RCW: Speculative fiction invites us to contextualize our lives differently – it reminds us that the present is just a point on a spectrum, that we are always, everywhere, someone’s astonishing future and someone else’s archaic past. Nadia Boulanger famously said, “In art, there are no generations, only individuals; all times have been modern.” I think this is as true of life as it is of art, and I think speculative fiction is the genre best able to acknowledge and explore that truth.