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Robert Charles Wilson: Alternating Worlds April 2003

Robert Charles Wilson was born in Southern California but has lived in Canada since age 9. His first sale was in 1974 to Analog (under the name "Bob Chuck Wilson"), but ten years passed before his next stories appeared in Asimov's and F&SF in 1985. His first novel, alternate world A Hidden Place (1986) was a Philip K. Dick Award finalist. Subsequent novels are Memory Wire (1987), Gypsies (1989), The Divide (1990), A Bridge of Years (1991), The Harvest (1993), Philip K. Dick Award winner Mysterium (1994), Aurora Award winner and Hugo finalist Darwinia (1998), Bios (1999), and The Chronoliths (2001), a Hugo nominee and winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Blind Lake is due August 2003. Short story collection The Perseids and Other Stories (2000) was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife in Concord, Ontario.
Photo by Beth Gwinn


Excerpts from the interview:

“My next book, Blind Lake, takes place in the relatively near future. The premise is that the art of telescopy has advanced to the point where we come across some unexpected discovery that lets us not only image a world circling another star, but image the surface and see the theoretically sentient culture. And not only that, but follow an individual through his daily life. What if we could see an alien culture intimately but had no access whatsoever to its symbol system and no hope of communication with it? How much could we understand of it? And what would it be like, knowing we could be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny without ever being aware of it? It raises the issue of how much of human culture is actually comprehensible. The grimmest example used by a character in the book is someone in an alien culture watching Nazis extract gold from the teeth of dead Jews. How do you comprehend this, categorize it and understand it? The overarching possibility is that it fundamentally doesn't make any sense.”


“I'm not one of those numbers guys. What I've taken from SF, what most of us have taken from SF, are philosophical ideas about our place in the universe, and what we see around us is not as it always has been or how it always will be. In human history there are so many institutions dedicated to making sure one generation resembles the one that went before it, culturally preserving religious ideas and the relationships of families in a futile effort to preserve these things through time. We live in a time where we realize these things not only aren't preserved, they're shattering and reforming almost daily around us. We never really did have an unchanging world, but it's become painfully obvious now. Ten years ahead is unforeseeable.”


“As a man approaching 50, I read current books in the field, and non-fiction and literary fiction, mainstream fiction. But I still find myself going back to Leiber and Robert A. Heinlein -- all those classic names. It's fun to kind of rediscover them every ten years or so, because they change. The obvious conclusion is that I'm changing, but I don't think it's true. You go back, and it's different. I can hear the authors more clearly now than I did when I was a kid -- it's like becoming more and more intimate with these vanished voices. That's what makes it so hard to meet people like Fred Pohl. I was introduced to him at the Campbell Memorial Award in Kansas. I know I'm a guy who writes stories and he's a guy who writes stories, but his stories were so much a part of my mental architecture, it's unnerving. This guy built half the contents of my mind! It's like being turned inside-out, to meet one of these people in the flesh.”


“We periodically issue justifications for the existence of science fiction. I guess the earliest was the Gernsbackian notion that we are actually educating people in science, raising people who will build a better radio. Now we have more sophisticated justifications -- saying we just use gaudier metaphors for the human condition, etc. But what makes us interesting is not just what we share with every other branch of literature, but what we don't share. It's hard to put your finger on it. When you shed away everything else, what is this absolutely mesmerizing thing we have? I swear to god I don't know, but I recognize it when I see it! If you try to pin down any specific -- like speculation about the future, or a sense of the cosmic, or a vision of our place in time and space -- that trivializes it somehow, because it's literary as well as philosophical. As bare philosophy it wouldn't be as meaningful. Our naked ideas are very juvenile in some ways, and they're often surpassed by later knowledge. But it's the insertion of humanity into these ideas that we do in science fiction, in a way that can be absolutely mesmerizing. That's what I would like to do: write one of those mesmerizing books.”


“Science fiction is one of those literatures that haven't had all that much respect, yet it has strange staying power. I was looking at issues of Galaxy from the early '50s, and in virtually every issue there was a story (and certainly an author) that's still in print. In Martha Foley's Best of the Year anthologies from the same period, except for the occasional Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger story, these names are gone and these stories are forgotten. But the 35˘ pulp magazines have enormous staying power. We've understandably tried to shed some of the crudeness and vulgarity that's associated with the field, but I think it's a mistake to do that by stepping away from the core science fiction thing. We have to refrain from the temptation of being embarrassed by what we are, because that's futile and artistically unrewarding and unproductive. Yeah, we're big, strange, gaudy, often vulgar, and colorful -- let's embrace that!”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the April 2003 issue of Locus Magazine.


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