Monday, August 20, 2012

Sci Fi Interview: Michael Z Williamson

The following interview was originally published in Chicago Buzznews in October of 2009.


Michael Z. Williamson is one of the authors who will be appearing at WindyCon in Lombard Illinois in November. A well known author of Military Science Fiction, Military Speculative Fiction and Adventure Fantasy; Michael has published eight novels and several short stories in the past decade. On the evening of September 29 - 2009, I had the opportunity to spend an hour tossing questions at Mike and enjoying his answers.

Travis: You're generally listed as an author of "Military Science Fiction" or "Military Speculative Fiction". What is a good "Reader's Digest" type of explanation for that genre?

MZW: Fiction set in future conflicts, addressing the background and people therein. The setting and tools are secondary, except as they affect the people and environment.

Travis: Does it have to be future?

MZW: It doesn't have to be a future, it can be an alternate present or past. It comes down to "What if?" What if we do or have something different, but ultimately, it's about people.

Travis: In my opinion (and I know I'm switching to movies) ... Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide are two very good examples of Military Speculative Fiction. Would you agree or disagree?

MZW: I've only seen the former, but yes. The Russian sub had a high tech drive, and Clancy speculated how it might be used and how a Soviet officer might act.

Travis: Then you really need to see Crimson Tide. A good look at what might happen if a U.S. Submarine Captain issues what might be an illegal order (a launch of a nuclear missile) and the Executive Officer refuses to second the command.

MZW: Right

Travis: Now that we've presented the readers with a good basic description what the ins and outs of the Genre are ... Let's talk about your first book. Freehold came off the presses in 2004. What is the general nature of the story?

MZW: I was speculating on how a libertarian society would function. There are things that a government does do well--roads and border control, for example. So I created a society that had the good and the bad (including bloodthirsty scam artists who made Enron look like bit players). Then I had to put in an immigrant in as an observer/actor. Kendra is in part based on me, because when I moved from the UK to Canada, and then to the US, I found they were very different cultures, and that's within the English speaking world to former colonies of my birthplace. When you cross language barriers it's even worse.

Then, we have a cultural sub sect who hates wealth and success, and that's common in quite a few cultures. What happens if they wind up in charge of the major nation at the time (a UN managed Earth)? They step in to provide "equality," of course, whether the natives want it or not.

And there's a long history of the UN doing exactly that--Indonesia, Africa, parts of Asia, Israel/Palestine...all places with conflict, of course.

Travis: Gotcha. How did Freehold wind up being published by Baen? And did you have to do much rewriting for them?

MZW: I was actually ranting in Baen's forum about the form rejections I got on short stories, which were dressed up with "alas" and similar (un)heartfelt comments. Why couldn't they just say "no thanks, try again"? I'd also been having ongoing debates on various strategies and weapons.

Jim Baen made a comment about alliterative alases, alacks, allays, etc, and said, "Send me a chapter of something you're working on."

Travis: (snickering)

MZW: He liked the intro a lot, but stopped reading when he said it got too wordy, so I chopped out 5 chapters, moved 5 later chapters up to keep the action going, and filled in with more stuff later. He only sent about 4 paragraphs of suggestions, and I did all the editing, which, IMO, is how it should be done. It's all my voice.

Travis: Sounds like someone fun to work with. But at least he wasn't afraid to point and go that this bit and that bit needed some work.

MZW: His suggestions tended to be brief, surgical and easy to fix.

Travis: Good! I hate overly obtrusive editors as much as stories where there is virtually no editing.

In my opinion ... A proper editor is a lot like the right bra for a voluptuous woman. It's very obvious when there isn't one.

MZW: hehe

Travis: About a year after Freehold, Baen published The Weapon ... Which is sort of both a preguel and a sequel to Freehold. What issues does it pick up on?

MZW: I think it was a couple of years, actually. I finished The Weapon, which I'd started in 2000, wrote The Hero with John Ringo, my sniper trilogy, and only after they were out did The Weapon get published.

It's an overlapping time frame from the POV of the officer who led the clandestine attack on Earth. In the first part, there's a little bit about factional warfare--you might like the individuals, but the subcultures are sick and violent. There's no real solution except to let them fight it out themselves.

The second part is an outsider looking at a fascist police state--the government controls all business, dictates their operations, takes heavy taxes, and there's just no way for entrepreneurs to compete without friends in high places and a lot of bribes, which means effectively not at all. So there's a massive oligarchy of corporations and government interests keeping themselves comfortable at the expense of everyone else. He's studying it to destroy it.

Then, after Earth attacks the Freehold, Captain Chinran has to lead clandestine attacks against primarily infrastructure, to make it impossible for this 100X bigger nation and economy to continue destroying his own. This of course means a LOT of collateral damage--when power goes out and things blow up, people panic and die.

Travis: How did you windup co authoring The Hero with John Ringo?

MZW: Someone else had set him up with a purely contemporary writer to do it, but there was no way this guy could scifi it up enough--the genres are too different. So John had an outline and needed it fleshed out. Jim suggested me so I'd get more name recognition. I turned 20K words of outline into 101K words of novel, and consulted to make sure it was correct for the universe. John did a final edit and off it went.

Travis: Sounds good. Had you previously read much of Ringo's stuff?

MZW: I'd read the 4 book trilogy that existed for that universe, yes.

(Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors love to mess with the word "Trilogy")

Travis: Okay. Other than Ringo, what author really peaks your interest?

MZW: Heinlein, Niven, Pournelle, Drake, Capstick, Kipling, Caidin.

Travis: You've done 1 or 2 other stories that occur in the same reality as Freehold but don't continue that particular storyline. What should we know about them?

MZW: Better to Beg Forgiveness... is halfway between then and now. It adds some color but isn't key material, so it stands alone. Future mercenaries guarding a head of state is the theme. I was tired of the constraints that military personnel have to operate under, and decided to have some fun.

Contact with Chaos is post-Freehold by about 30 years and deals with first contact with aliens. I call it "Stonepunk." The Ishkul are stone age in that they don't have ready access to metals, but they have distillation, hydraulics, selective breeding, ceramics, gas light and limited steam power...which also means they have rocket artillery, rocket and hang-glider mounted airborne troops, and high explosives and poison gas.

Travis: So they're roughly somewhere around 18th or 19th century for Europe or the US. Is that about right?

MZW: Between 1850 and 1920 depending on the technology, yes.

Travis: What else have you put out?

MZW: Several short stories for Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar in some anthologies, a Freehold short in Joe Haldeman's "Future Weapons of War," lots of political and satirical bits in magazines and online, product reviews of firearms and outdoor gear of various kinds. I was a guest on 5 episodes of "The Best Defense: Survival" on the Outdoor Channel, this year.

Travis: Nice. If you could drop a short story or novel into someone else's already established reality ... Which author's world would you most want to do it with?

MZW: I'm actually hoping to have one ready in time for the next Man Kzin Wars. I also have some discussions ongoing for anthologies. I'm hoping to confirm something regarding at least one of those soon. Writing is such a fickle business.

Travis: I know the feeling on that one.

Authors occasionally have a character that begins to turn and go against the author's original intentions. Have you had a character that really seems to defy you and just wants to go off in his or her own direction?

MZW: Sort of. Though I realize it's my job to whip them down. Those aspects can always be used for a lead character later.

Travis: You seem like someone who uses his writing to sort through his own political and social thoughts and feelings. How much do you think this occurs with you?

MZW: I express some, but I have to keep in mind that it must be accessible to enough readers to sell. Stories that don't sell have failed to deliver the message. I don't have any limits per se, but my own positions can be extreme, and would just not endear me to readers. So I let the stories be about what they are.

Travis: How do you notice that you're starting to get "extreme"?

MZW: I have first readers for some things, but I have a pretty good general sense. Personally, I want just enough government to avoid sheer anarchy. I realize it's an impossible ideal, but that's what ideals are--goals to strive for, which a rational person knows will never be reached.

Travis: Understood and agreed.
What got you into serving in the Military?

MZW: I wasn't mature enough for college but needed away from home.

Travis: Not mature enough for college but wanting to handle a gun. What does this say about the younger you?

MZW: I already handled guns then, and I still do now.

Travis: And honestly ... You're someone that I'd trust to be around when he was holding one. Because you respect what you're holding. In my opinion ... That's a serious part of the whole "Gang Violence" problem. Almost anyone can pick up a gun. It takes the right training and education to begin to realize that simply holding a gun in your hand doesn't automatically make you "Important".

MZW: Next year you should make our shoot. We spent the whole weekend with about 50 guns.

Travis: I'd like to attend and maybe do just a bit of shooting. But I'd much rather be the guy holding the video camera.

What is on the burner that your readers should hope to be seeing soon?

MZW: A sequel to Better to Beg Forgiveness..., a sequel to that, and possibly a sequel to The Weapon, plus some anthologies.

Travis: Sounds good. Any final comments?

MZW: Thanks for the interview. I always enjoy questions that help me explore my own work.

Travis: You're very welcome


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