#54 = Volume 18, Part 2 = July 1991
An Interview with Jack Williamson
The year that Jack Williamson published his first "scientifiction" story in
Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, Babe
Ruth had just hit a record 60 home runs, and a patent had just been issued to
Vladimir Zworykin for the television tube. The impending stock market crash and
the Great Depression were as yet only unlikely elements in some particularly
pessimistic future history series. It was still several years before most
Americans would hear the name of Adolph Hitler, 17 years before the atomic bomb
would be dropped on Hiroshima, 30 years before Sputnik was launched, 40 years
before Neil Armstrong would take his "giant leap" onto the surface of the
Moon. Ronald Reagan was still a teenager.
It was 1928.
Williamson, born in 1908, was a largely self educated farm boy whose family
crossed into New Mexico in one of the last of the covered wagons. The American
SF field that he entered and within which he soon began to publish widely was
still virgin territory. Whereas European SF was already in the process of
producing a number of works of formal originality and thematic significance (Zamiatin's
We , Karel Čapek's The Absolute at Large , Aldous Huxley's
World , and Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men , for
instances), the maturing of SF in the US was being delayed by its self imposed "ghettoization"
within the hardware/adventure oriented pulp magazines that flourished in
American markets until the 1950s. Although a number of thoughtful and
speculative SF authors emerged from this pulp scene (Asimov, Heinlein, van Vogt,
Sturgeon, and Williamson himself, for example), even the best of these works
were typically being created by men (and a few women) possessing rich
imaginations and backgrounds in science but lacking the literary skills to fully
express their visions.
This situation gradually changed, however, until by the 1960s and '70s American
SF had expanded to include a number of artists possessing an ęsthetic and
literary sophistication to match their complex thematic ambitions. By now, it
is clear that American SF has evolved into a major vanguard art form that is
ideally suited for expressing the technological wonders and terrors of the 20th
century. Given the rapid and profound changes occurring within SF and the very
different demands placed upon authors during each period of American SF's
mutation and development, it is remarkable that any single writer could have
continued to adapt to so many different literary climates. But Williamson's
intellectual curiosity, his eclectic literary tastes, and his ability to
recognize and respond to how SF was changing allowed him to survive—and even
thrive—in SF's highly competitive market place.
Having spent his very early years in pre revolutionary Mexico, Williamson has
lived for most of his adulthood in Portales, a small New Mexican town perched on
the edge of the Texas Panhandle. Although physically isolated from the
mainstream urban centers of culture and intellectual exchange, Portales's big
skies and limitless vistas provided Williamson room to imagine what might lie
above and around him.
In the 1930s, masses of semi educated, semi literate people were longing for
tales that could project for them the sense of the wonders and potential dangers
of science, which was only just then beginning to have a visible impact on the
lives of ordinary citizens via the recent invention of automobiles, radios,
airplanes, and so forth. By the mid '30s, Williamson had established himself as
one of the most prolific and imaginative writers in a rapidly mushrooming
field. His numerous early works, which Williamson produced at a staggeringly
prolific pace, were primarily adolescent adventure stories that today seem to
cry out for Jungian or Freudian interpretations. These works were classic
"space operas" set in exotic interplanetary locales, inhabited by colorful
(if frequently one dimensional) characters, with plenty of exciting
action—stories whose adherence to scientific accuracy and psychological
plausibility was counterbalanced by numerous inconsistencies. Still, the most
notable of these early pulp classics—The Legion of Space (1934), The Cometeers
(1936), and The Legion of Time (1938)—display a fine sense of narrative
pacing, an intuitive feel for memorable characters, and vivid, highly
particularized worlds, part dream, part rational projection.
It was during the 1940s, however, that Williamson wrote his most influential
works. As with many other SF authors during this period, he had been encouraged
by John Campbell (the editor of the leading SF magazine of the time, Astounding)
to develop plots and characters that would have some carefully worked out basis
in actual scientific principles. But while following that rule to some extent,
Williamson's output of the '40s is markedly different from the elegantly
reasoned (but passionless) SF of someone like Isaac Asimov. Rather, as Brian Aldiss puts it in his survey of SF's history (Billion Year Spree), Williamson
"operates powerfully at the dreaming pole" of SF. In others words, though
Williamson greatly admires scientific and rational thought, he himself is very
much an intuitive writer whose work also expresses powerful psychological
states—and a deep ambivalence about the suitability of using reason as the basis
of defining ourselves and our values.
This clash of allegiances creates a powerful tension in The Humanoids
(1948), Williamson's best known work, which was to have a major impact on the
presentation of robots for the next two decades. Depicting the takeover of the
world by benevolent robots, The Humanoids memorably expresses
Williamson's deep ambivalence towards the value of rationality in general.
By the 1950s, Williamson began to sense that a new generation of SF
authors were leaving him behind. He accordingly decided to update his scientific
background and explore literature more deeply by going back to college. At the
age of 50, he enrolled as a student of English in graduate school, where he
served as a teaching assistant and was awarded his doctorate (from the
University of Colorado) in 1964. Although he wrote virtually no SF during this
period, Williamson would eventually make good use of his readings in Beowulf,
Chaucer, Rabelais, and Shakespeare to broaden his literary range when he resumed
writing SF during the 1970s. More importantly, he was preparing himself to make
what was to be his most significant contribution to the field during the 1960s
and '70s: the establishment of SF as a suitable subject for college courses and
In part this involved making criticism of SF "respectable," a project which he
contributed to by publishing one of the first scholarly treatments of the genre:
his dissertation, H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress. He also compiled a
comprehensive list of college courses dealing with SF, helped establish a
tentative canon of texts and critical resources (his Teaching SF: Education for
Tomorrow quickly became a standard guidebook on its subject), and began speaking
at scholarly meetings about the need for the academy to acknowledge the literary
significance of SF. Inasmuch as the formation of the SF Research Association in
1970 in some sense reflected these efforts of his to bring together a community
of scholars, it was only fitting that he receive the SFRA's 1973 Pilgrim Award
for a lifetime contribution to SF criticism. Two years later, he received the SF
Writers Association's "Grand Master Nebula Award"—he was the second author to
be so honored (the first was Robert Heinlein).
The following interview took place during a series of conversations I had
with Williamson at his Portales home during the mid 1980s. He still retains the
boyish smile and shy, quietly determined facial features evident in photographs,
adorning the walls of his study, that show Jack during SF's pulp heyday. An
entire bookshelf is devoted to displaying first editions and translations of his
works. New titles are also accumulating on these shelves, as Jack—now with the
aid of a word processor—continues to write SF, also in collaboration with others
(notably with Fred Pohl). His most recent books include The Humanoid Touch
(1980), a re examination of the dilemma of people and machines, and The
Queen of the Legion (1983), a belated addition to The Legion series volumes
that appeared 40 years earlier, exuding a sense of youthful adventure and
Williamson concludes his autobiography, Wonder's Child: My Life in Science
Fiction (1984), with this comment on his re entry into fiction writing in the
1980s: "Overage for many things, I've been elated that writing is still great
fun. The wonder is still alive...." We may hope that SF's own sense of the "wonder" will prove as enduring as Williamson himself.
Larry McCaffery: In looking over the body of SF you've written during the past
60 years, I'm struck with the way it has managed to adapt and flourish within
very different SF environments. Could you talk a bit about how some of these
changes came about—what produced them, what the results were?
Jack Williamson: Of course, in the beginning I was a not too well educated farm
boy trying to write fiction in a field that I had very little formal training to
prepare me for. I'd had a total of six years of schooling before I sold my first
story, so obviously I had a great deal to learn about science and literature. I
hope that over the years I've managed to learn more about human nature, too. In
my youth I lived on an isolated farm and ranch without many human contacts, and
this unfamiliarity with different kinds of people is evident in my early works.
Another thing that's happened to me (and to everyone else, both inside and
outside of SF) has been the change in my views of technology. Back when I was
starting out writing SF—in the 1920s and '30s—technology was viewed as being
wonderful. Science was making a new world for us. Hugo Gernsback had this
perspective as the credo for his old Amazing and Wonder magazines, and in those
days we had actual public heroes who were scientists and technologists:
Einstein, Luther Burbank, Edison, and Henry Ford. Since then we have generally
lost our optimism about technology. My feeling is that we've probably lost too
much of this belief, even though I suspect that one of the reasons for the
recent respect for SF grows out of the widespread concern people have today
about the potential dangers technology is bringing with it—the new ecological
alarms added to the older fears of war and space, and the misuse of atomic
LM: Still, what are the alternatives to a dependence on technology? I know
someone like Ursula Le Guin urges us to consider essentially eliminating
technology (and the political, economic, and gender systems supporting
technology). But that somehow strikes me as being a pipedream.
JW: Me, too. We're stuck with technology and we'll just have to figure out how
to use it. Stuart Chase's article "Two Cheers for Technology" makes
interesting points about this problem. Before World War II and Hiroshima, we had
been proud of technology, optimistic about our future and our stature; there was
a sense we had control over our own destiny. Right now, though, there seems to
be a contagious fear of the future—a fear that has brought our faith in science
to a crisis. All the dilemmas of accelerating change are suddenly too near to be
ignored any longer. We see ourselves trapped in a kind of frightening paradox.
As scary as certain areas of technology may seem to us, we also know our own
survival is bound up in it. But even though technology remains absolutely vital
to us, our attitudes toward it keep getting unreasonably darker and darker.
LM: Le Guin seems to be suggesting that perhaps people should abandon the
notion that our future must be bound up with technological progress. She is
opting for a rural, anarchic utopian world as a possible alternative.
JW: Any utopian vision that suggests our society is going to exist without
technology is simply wrongheaded. We've been stuck with technology, in one
shape or another, for thousands and thousands of years. Technology has advanced,
slowly at first, but faster and faster. Each advance demolishes old ways of
living and old systems of values and upsets a lot of people. In many ways,
that's what SF, when it's at its best, always does: suggest how these changes
affect people. When people learned to build fires, they burned the prairies and
the forests; more human beings have been hurt in forest fires than in accidents
in nuclear laboratories. When people learned to plow up the soil, they
devastated the planet's natural condition. Yet each such advance has allowed
more and more people to live, has created better social institutions, has
produced more material comforts than we ever had before. People aren't willingly
going to give up antibiotics or television or electricity or even the
frightening power of the atom. And these sorts of technological processes—the
good and the bad—will continue.
LM: Most of the New Wave authors who emerged in the 1960s seemed to share a
particularly pessimistic attitude about science and technology.
JW: New Wave fiction generally sprang from a wrong headed terror of technology
and an ignorance of science. It magnified all the ugliness and terrible features
of contemporary society—wars, racism, filth and crimes and drugs and
pollution—and slanted its presentation against the idea of progress and the
system of private enterprise. The worlds it forecast were nightmares of
overpopulation, mechanized oppression, universal frustration and repression,
with all this glib pessimism only thinly disguised with the "new" stylistic
devices they borrowed from the modernist literary generation of Joyce and
LM: Did the Wave's emphasis on experimentalism and its conscious efforts to
make SF more "literary" have any kind of permanent effects on the field?
JW: After it subsided—it's old hat now—it probably left us with a sharpened
awareness of language and a keener interest in literary experiment. It did wash
up occasional bits of beauty and power. For example, it helped launch the
careers of such writers as Chip Delany, Brian Aldiss, and Harlan Ellison, all of
whom seem to have gone on their own highly individualistic directions. But the
key point here is that New Wave SF failed to move people. I'm not sure if this
failure was due to its pessimistic themes or to people feeling the stuff was
too pretentious. But it never really grabbed hold of people's imaginations.
LM: What would you say are the most significant scientific advances that have
happened since you first began writing?
JW: In terms of its effects up until now, opening up the atom. It may be that
the computer will have a bigger impact in the long run. I am also fascinated
with possibilities of genetic engineering.
LM: Didn't you invent the term "genetic engineering" in one of of your
JW: I hesitate to claim that, but I did write a novel that was published in
1951, in which I referred to the new science of "genetic engineering" as a way
to recreate the human race. I don't recall having seen the phrase before that
point (the idea, of course, had been around for sometime).
LM: Quite a while ago you said that when you began writing a story you start off
with an abstract idea and then later on fill in details about plot and
character. Has that approach changed over the years?
JW: Not at all. If anything, I work this way even more nowadays because I have a
better idea of the story as a form, a shape, a linguistic structure. The only
way I know to write a story is to hit upon some historical or philosophical
concept whose implications I can work out in my head before I actually sit down
and start writing. In other words, the first thing I need is the theme, not the
story to state the theme; then I begin to build a narrative out of whatever
appeals to my imagination. But it's the working out of the abstract idea that
seems to start the creative processes going and generates the characters, the
mood, and so on. In most of my fiction I've had a basic goal of presenting a
theme and finding ways to tie the broad theme to a plot which will get the human
complex involved. I try not to make the pre planned elements the heart of the
story, mind you—it's the tension between characters whose interacting is
produced by the plot somehow that is finally what's going to involve readers,
even though all this is directed by the thesis of the piece. A lot of times I
will write a few pages, or even a few chapters in a novel, and then stop to make
certain I fully understand the thematic implications of what I'm creating—to
ensure this theme is getting a clear and effective statement. I find that what I
feel is more important than what I think in this whole creative process. Even
though I need to know the characters, the major conflicts, and the endings of my
works while I'm at work, I trust my intuition to help me allow the story to
grow and change in ways I hadn't consciously planned out in advance. One thing
that has changed in my writing habits since I started out is that I've learned
to encourage and depend on the creative input I get from the unconscious. For
example, I've found some of my best ideas for writing come when I wake up at
night to plan episodes; I seem more in touch with my unconscious at those times.
LM: Have you ever begun a work with the characters and then let the story
develop from that point?
JW: I don't believe I really have. Maybe the closest I've come to that is with
the most famous character I ever created, old Giles Habibula in the Legion
stories, who came to dominate the pieces he appeared in. The beginning for that
series was my listening to a lecture on The Great Books by Dr George St Clair at
the University of New Mexico back in the 1930s. He commented that the Polish
novelist who wrote Quo Vadis had written Polish historical novels using the
characters out of The Three Musketeers and Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff. It
struck me that what worked with historical fiction would work with SF. I had
already pretty much lived with The Three Musketeers, but since I certainly
wasn't yet a Shakespearean scholar, I went back and read Falstaff's speeches in
a couple of plays. I got from them whatever it took to bring Giles to life in my
LM: You've said that as a kid you frequently retreated into your imagination.
What did you mean by that?
JW: When I was growing up, my family lived a long way from everybody else. We
rode horseback to school and the nearest neighbors were often several miles
away. I was the oldest kid in the family, and I didn't have many contacts with
other kids. I did a lot of farmwork—riding horses after a string of cattle,
gathering the corn, that sort of thing. Working alone so often like that was
naturally pretty boring, so I started creating these endless epics and fictional
cycles in which I was the principal character—all this done simply as a way of
keeping my mind alive. Sometimes when I was working with my brothers and
sisters, I used to tell them stories of that sort to entertain us all. But
mostly it was just a device for my own amusement.
LM: What were the special attractions that draw you to SF rather than to other
forms of fiction?
JW: It was partly practical considerations—namely, I didn't know enough about
anything else to write it. I do remember that when I came across Gernsback's Amazing Stories, I was completely fascinated by the covers by the artist Frank
R. Paul. They look pretty crude now, but back then they seemed wonderful and
exotic. They conjured up these startling images of strange machines and strange
creatures, spaceships taking off for other planets. That was what SF fiction was
about! Wonderful inventions, travel in space, travel in time, future ages, other
worlds. Losing yourself in those faraway places was a wonderful escape from the
hardships and drudgery and dullness that made up life on the farm in the Sandhills.
LM: When you started out writing did you have much of a literary background at
JW: In a limited way. My parents had both been teachers, and they taught us at
home. They encouraged reading and subscribed to things like The Saturday Evening
Post and some of the quality magazines like Harper's and Scribner's. My mother
used to read a great deal of this material out loud. She herself had wanted to
be a writer and had bought a little mail order fiction writing course that I
studied when I was trying to get my first stories into print.
LM: Abe Merritt was your first literary hero, wasn't he? What made his work seem
to stand out from the other pulp fiction of that period?
JW: Merritt's fiction always seemed to be a perfect escape that plunged you into
very vivid, strangely evocative worlds that were dazzling, completely
different. His short story "The People of the Pit" was in one of the first
Amazing Stories issues I saw, and it seemed to have the strong emotional impact
that Poe says a short story should be able to deliver. He created stories about
lost races or unknown civilizations, and he wrote in a very poetic style that
probably seems corny now but which seemed very eloquent to wide eyed kids. I
seldom look back at his writing lest it destroy my old illusions, but at the
time I was completely captivated. I was drawn in by the colorful style, the
drama, romance, his depiction of struggles between things that symbolized good
and evil. My very first story, "The Metal Man" , obviously is imitative
of Merritt, and so are several other of my earliest works. It's difficult to
describe how excited I was when Merritt actually wrote to me after the initial
section of my second story, "The Alien Intelligence," ran as a serial. He said
he liked it so much he'd like to see a carbon copy of the rest of it so he
wouldn't have to wait for the next issue. I was so overwhelmed by his request
that I immediately sat down and asked his permission to write a sequel to his
novelette, "The Face in the Abyss," which, it turned out, he had already
completed on his own. He did agree to collaborate with me on a new project,
which we tentatively called The Purple Mountain; and in the fall of 1930, I
actually wrote an opening of something like 20,000 words; but that was as far as
we got. He never returned the manuscript which, I'm sure, must have been pretty
awful stuff. By today's standards the kind of style Merritt was creating seems
excessive, florid and adjective laden, but I'm sure his books had a very
positive influence on my own work simply in their emphasis on color, wonder,
the magic of sheer imagination. Those things have always been part of SF. And
always will be, I hope.
LM: The work of Merritt, Burroughs, and a lot of the other popular pulp SF
authors during that period mainly seemed to provide readers with an imaginative
escape from everything that ailed or bored them. There's often a vivid
imagination at work, but obviously not much attention to science (or any other
standard of verisimilitude). Did you consciously conceive your work to be a
similar kind of pure escapism? Or did you, early on, try to unite this approach
with the idea oriented fiction that Gernsback championed when he started
editing Amazing Stories?
JW: Even though I wrote those early pieces pretty much under Merritt's spell, I
was interested almost from the beginning in the realistic aspects of SF, the way
it develops possibilities and probabilities in the future. My first published
piece was an editorial called "Scientifiction: Searchlight of Science," which
developed the idea (maybe overdeveloped it) that SF was futurology, testing new
ideas before scientists got around to them. There were other influences that
came in to counteract Merritt. I discovered H.G. Wells, for example. I read most
of Wells's SF early on. In fact, Gernsback was reprinting the best of it in the
old Amazing. Also, I more or less apprenticed myself to Dr Miles J. Breuer, who
was writing stories I admired considerably. Breuer was a good influence because
he stressed the importance of ideas, themes, and character; pure escapism
didn't interest him. He helped me eliminate some of the romantic, imaginative
excesses (which in those days were so common, really, in most SF and fantasy) in
my early work.
LM: Do you still agree with the premise of that first essay you published: that
SF's futurological ability is its most important feature?
JW: In one way it is still very important. It's part of the popular mythology
surrounding the field. Everyone knows that Jules Verne forecast the airplane and
the submarine and the flight to the Moon, that H.G. Wells forecast atomic bombs.
SF authors are always looking for the impact of newer technologies, more
wonderful or dreadful. Certainly it is still part of my image of the field. I
like to define SF as an imaginative exploration of what is thought to be
possible (as opposed to fantasy, which doesn't make any pretense that it could
be). But in another sense, it's easy to exaggerate this predictive gift. For one
thing, if you're trying too hard to make accurate predictions, you find this
accuracy can get in the way of the story—as Wells found out when he was writing
The Sleeper Awakes. Wells was the real inventor of modern futurology, and he
soon drifted out of writing SF into propagandizing for the kind of future he
wanted and against the future he feared.
Of course, most SF is written to entertain, and the average SF author is more
stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious
prophet. In practice, once you're into the process of actually writing a work
of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You
become more involved in following the fictional logic you've invented for your
characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real
possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable
event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.
That's why creating SF that actually does make an effort to describe a possible
future that actually could exist is so difficult. As Wells discovered, serious
social forecasts mix poorly with the ęsthetic demands of fiction—except in the
case of works by that handful of writers who share Wells's regard for a
scrupulous attention to the scientific method (although Wells himself was often
more concerned with illusion than actual science— you can see that in The
Invisible Man). Aldous Huxley, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert A.
Heinlein come to mind as examples of SF authors who have justified the popular
myth of SF's futurological accuracy. I'd like to feel that I've created some
works that have contributed to that myth, as well.
LM: You sold your first story to Gernsback. I gather he wasn't an active editor
in the same way that John Campbell was—in the sense of providing specific
suggestions about individual works.
JW: No, he didn't pay the kind of individual attention to authors and stories
that Campbell, a remarkably generous and sensitive editor, did. I know most of
my dealings with Gernsback were financial. I met him only once and that was for
about 15 minutes when he came out of his office to shake hands with me. All
told, he bought perhaps a quarter million words of my fiction, and he paid for
it rather reluctantly. After he paid for the first few stories at half a cent a
word (sometimes less), he stopped paying me altogether. Finally, I got an
attorney associated with the American Fiction Guild to force Gernsback to send
me payment. I gather other writers had similar experiences with him. At any
rate, his main influence in the field was simply to start Amazing and Wonder
Stories and get SF out to the public newsstands—and to name the genre he had
earlier called "scientifiction." He was important for those reasons, but he
was not a creative editor in the sense that Campbell and others have been. My
understanding is that most of his actual editorial work was done by
subordinates. So although he published and finally paid for the stories he
accepted, he never made any suggestions about how to make them better. He
insisted in the masthead of his magazine that SF was prophetic fiction, and to
further this image he used to publish a picture of Jules Verne in the old
Amazing. He had a whole staff of scientific experts who were supposed to check
the accuracy of the stories in Wonder Stories, but so far as I know, none of
mine was ever examined by his experts. Strangely, even though he preached the
notion of technological progress, he also was reprinting Wells's stories that
are critical of this idea.
LM: When you were producing your first important works during the 1930s, did SF
writers feel they were part of a literary community that was creating a new
genre with common goals? Or did you tend to feel you were working independently?
JW: Since there were so few people writing SF, you tended to be aware of (and
even contact) one another. Soon after I began publishing, I was in
correspondence with a number of other SF authors, such as Ed Hamilton, who
became a friend—we even went down the Mississippi River together once in an
outboard motor boat. As I already mentioned, I met Breuer and collaborated with
him. During that period there was very much a sense of belonging to a small
group pretty much ignored or misunderstood by the literary world. The literary
establishment regarded SF as absolute sub literate nonsense; and when you
mentioned SF in those days, you usually had to explain that it was a form of
adventure story with a science background. So there was a real sense that we
belonged to a very small, neglected, rejected community, united by our special
attitudes toward technology and the future.
LM: The popularity of SF seems to have been expanding steadily since the 1950s
in nearly every artistic medium (cinema, books, magazines, television, even rock
music). What's behind this fascination?
JW: This growth phenomenon has actually been going on a long time. There have
been "recessions" in popular interest in SF during the past 40 years, but no
recession has ever brought us back down to a level we had occupied previously.
The real explosion began after World War II, when people began reprinting the
old pulp stories in book form. One factor was simply that young SF fans had now
grown up without ever completely losing interest in it. Then, too, over the
years, the SF audience has diversified— there are more and more sorts of
people reading more and more sorts of SF. Another factor is that people are more
and more aware that technology is changing the world, that the future is going
to be different. Whether or not these differences are seen as being good or bad,
SF speaks to this awareness. And, of course, some of the popularity of SF in the
US has to do with the same timeless qualities that attracted a kid like me,
living out in what was still pretty much wilderness—especially its ability to
transport you to a place of wonder and adventure. Star Wars is really pure
adolescent escapism—precisely the sort of SF I was writing back in the 1930s.
LM: Beginning with The Crucible of Power in 1939, you began to write fiction
that's noticeably more complex—your characters and their motivation seem more
psychologically convincing, your plots become more tied to premises that are
scientifically accurate, and so on. Did this shift in your work occur partially
as a result of your association with Campbell, to whom you began to sell stories
regularly at about this time?
JW: Campbell certainly helped me begin to develop a greater awareness of what
sorts of things I could do with SF. His was then the leading SF magazine, and
getting published there regularly helped expand my horizons in all sorts of
ways. I met Campbell and a good many of his writers, and I was very much aware
of what he was trying to do with SF. He had a science background and was
strongly committed to SF that projected a generally positive attitude toward
technology and the future. He wrote long letters of criticism to writers, making
specific, useful suggestions. For example, the "Seetee" stories that I did for
him resulted largely from suggestions he made. I went to him with a notion for a
series of stories about planetary engineers who would "terraform" new
planets. He suggested that some of these could be CE (contra terra, or anti
matter). He wrote me a few long letters about anti matter—arguing, for example,
that it would not have reverse motion in time.
LM: It was during this same general period (the late '30s and early '40s) that
some of your best work begins to move away from a reliance on strictly
scientific principles toward fantasy oriented approaches.
LM: I said earlier that I distinguished SF from other fantasy approaches by the
fact that SF should always make an effort to depict something that could
possibly happen, while fantasy doesn't create this kind of direct link with
reality. This definition is pretty subjective because fantasy forms can also be
connected to the world around us symbolically. In my own fantasy fiction, like
Darker Than You Think , there is, of course, a link with reality in that I
am using these fantasy elements as a way of describing real human emotions,
motivations, and feelings, though these have been transferred to this fantasy
setting. For me, there always has to be an element of human reality to any work
of literature or it would be worthless—or at least impossible to read with
admiration. I had actually written many fantasy type stories even before the
late '30s (my Golden Blood was published in Weird Tales in 1933), so I wouldn't
say my fiction really suddenly became fantasy oriented later on. At any rate,
even when I write fantasy stories, I always try to make an appeal to scientific
LM: You've attributed the origins of your story "Breakdown" to some readings
you were doing in philosophy of history at the time. Were you studying science
or philosophy or history in any kind of formal way during this period?
JW: Not in any formal way, no. I was, however, uncovering all sorts of ideas on
my own, and these worked their way into my work. I had read Spengler's Decline
of the West and several volumes of Toynbee's study of history. Toynbee appealed
to me because of his "challenge and response" notion, derived from the
stimulus response theory of psychology, which enabled him to make his cultures
or civilizations into entities that had regular, predictable lifetimes. This was
plausible to him and to a lot of people studying history at the time. It created
the possibility that one might be able to get a kind of handle on the future—an
idea I could see could be applied as a means of forecasting a future history. So
I based "Breakdown" on Spengler and Toynbee, and I wrote a drama of the
decline and fall of a future civilization. It seemed obvious that since people
seem so endlessly fascinated with the eclipse of Greece and the fall of Rome,
the notion of our own civilization falling into ruin would naturally have a
similarly strong emotional appeal.
LM: Did your own personal experiences with psychoanalysis during the late '30s
have some effect on your fiction, perhaps by making you more aware of the
symbolic dimensions of our imaginations?
JW: I suppose it did have some effect on my work along the lines you're
suggesting, but I'm not really certain of any specific things I could point to.
One of the reasons I was undergoing psychoanalysis was specifically to help me
become a more successful writer. I was finding myself starting stories and not
being able to finish them, and I wasn't able to keep up with the very
unrealistic goals I had set for myself. I had read about some of the other great
pulp writers like Max Brand who were able to write a staggering amount of
fiction (4 5,000 words of good copy a day, a million or even several million
words a year), while I was never able to average more than around 100,000 words
in a year. I wanted to escape those limitations, reach other markets besides SF
magazines, reach my very romanticized goal of being a "real writer."
But the problems that led me to seek psychoanalysis were more than just
connected to writing. I was unhappy in many ways with the way my whole life was
progressing. I wanted to learn for myself more about psychology, more about
human nature, as well as my own human nature. I felt very socially inhibited at
the time, especially shy around girls. I was hoping psychoanalysis would help
me overcome some of these personal problems as well as helping me get more truth
about human nature into the fictional characters I was creating. I wound up
spending a year under psychoanalysis with Dr Charles W. Tidd in 1936-37—and
then, when I decided it hadn't gone far enough, for another year in 1940-41.
Over the years I imagine I have learned more about these things, though I'm not
sure it had any immediate, dramatic effects, either on my own life or on my
fiction. I like to say that its effect wasn't so much in changing me as it was
in helping me grow to understand and accept myself. I found myself feeling as if
I was joining the human race finally. I got married to a girl I had known in
school when I was a boy, for example. I joined the Masonic Lodge and the
Methodist Church and the Rotary Club, and generally felt less a critical
spectator of life than an active member of the human race. In that sense it had
an influence on my behavior and doubtless on my SF. For example, in Darker Than
You Think, there's a psychologist who's very definitely not a hero. This novel
was written while I was under analysis, and it probably conveys some of my
unconscious feelings towards my analyst in certain ways that are not very kind
(he was a man whom I liked and admired and who did me a lot of good).
LM: April Bell, the woman in Darker Than You Think who turns into a wolf bitch
at night and leads Will Barbee to run through the dark woods, suggests a kind of
Freudian vision of the Id—of the darker side of sexual desire and instincts.
Were these Freudian implications deliberate?
JW: It was actually written while I was under analysis, and in many ways it
reflects the psychoanalytic situation I was experiencing quite directly.
Interestingly enough, though, the first thing my analyst told me when I started
the psychoanalytic process was to stop reading Freud. Which I did. So as I was
writing Darker Than You Think, I wasn't deliberately trying to write a Freudian
novel. But one of the most important things analysis did was to help me escape
the strong dichotomy I felt existing within myself between reason and emotion—a
conflict that had been a basic part of my nature for some time. Up until the
period I began to undergo psychoanalysis, I had been trying to rule my life on
the basis of reason in defiance of emotion. During analysis, I was coming to
respect the emotional side of life, to understand that it is good. This personal
process is no doubt dramatized in the novel, though I wasn't consciously
controlling a lot of this material. In fact, my writing this novel could be
seen as being part of the analysis process, a response and early recognition
and acceptance of the emotional, maybe sexual, side of people.
LM: Have you made a conscious effort to develop psychoanalytic themes in any of
your other fiction? Or maybe discovered their presence later on?
JW: I've discovered that most of my fiction could be read in a psychoanalytic
manner. Looking at even some of my earliest fiction, I can see that the stories
are often partially, in one way or another, disguised sexual fantasies whose
implications I was certainly unaware of at the time. I doubt that readers of
this work would derive these psychoanalytic meanings from the stories; but
these unconscious, repressed elements contributed a certain texture, a form, to
the theme of the stories. But I haven't tried to deliberately write any
psychoanalytic or Freudian stories. My experience is that when I try to access
psychoanalytic materials, my conscious awareness of what I'm doing usually
destroys everything. I would still claim that I am a Freudian, even though I
don't read his works any more, because I'm convinced that what he has to say
about our unconscious and its effect on the way we respond to things is very
largely valid. And his theories can be applied to help you understand very
nearly any piece of literature, assuming you know enough sound information about
the writer, his psychology, his personal situation.
LM: Adam Cave in Bright New Universe seems to have a Freudian "primal scene"
memory which helps explain his rejection of Kayren and his horrified reaction to
seeing Polly Ming have sex with that tentacled monster. In fact, throughout
that book your treatment of people's fear of contact with alien beings almost
seems to express a collective unconscious response to deep seated sexual fears.
JW: Even though I really wasn't consciously developing that Freudian approach,
it strikes me right now as probably true. Quite honestly, before you raised the
possibility just now, I hadn't ever applied the idea of contact between
cultures to contact between physical beings, but I can see that this is probably
part of the psychology of the story—and part of my motivation for writing the
book in the first place. It's always possible to find out more about something
LM: You've probably collaborated in works more frequently and with better
results than just about any other SF writer. How do these collaborations
typically work? For instance, what was the background of your work with Jim Gunn
on Star Bridge ?
JW: In the early 1940s, I had written a story, or a great part of it, called "Star of Empire"—a sequel to
"Breakdown." I had developed the planet Eron,
had the novel roughly plotted, and all in all had maybe 100 or so pages written.
But somehow I sensed that it wasn't going well. Since I couldn't tell what was
the matter with it, I laid it aside for nearly ten years. About that time I had
met Jim Gunn and I mentioned to him the early work I had done on the book.
Almost immediately he was interested in working on it with me. This seemed like
a good idea—Jim was part of the New Wave of that day, a young, bright, gifted
man whose work I liked and respected— so we set to work on it. We wound up
replotting the entire thing, with most of the new story line being derived from
Jim's suggestions. He then wrote a new draft based on this new plot. He sent
this new version to me and I made some suggestions. The revisions were pretty
minor, really. Basically, then, I provided the book's basic premise while Jim
supplied most of the characters, the story's style, plot, and background—and he
was also responsible for getting the thing completed. In terms of Chomsky's
linguistic terminology, you could say that the deep structure was mine, while
the surface structure was his.
LM: Did your collaborations with Fred Pohl develop along those same lines?
JW: Essentially in the same way, yes. Our first collaboration involved another
book I had tried to write called The Conquest of the Abyss, which was to be
about the colonization of the ocean. I had worked out the background very
carefully—the descriptions of the undersea cities, methods of transportation,
the government, society, characters, some scenes. I had written 100 pages or so,
but once again the thing had mysteriously stalled. Years later I mentioned it
to Fred Pohl and sent it to him. From what I gave him, he largely wrote Undersea
Quest , though he sent his version to me and I made some suggestions. But
the final version was Fred's again. For the sequels, we would discuss plot
outlines by mail; I would do a rough draft and Fred would rewrite it. The same
thing was true with the Starchild stories. I had written a story called "The
Iron Collar Man" and worked out the notion of the Reefs in Space, as well as
the conflict between the opportunities for democracy on the space frontier and
the oppressive central society. That was another story which had arisen out of
some historical readings I was doing. I had come across a book by Walter
Prescott Webb called The Great Frontier, whose thesis was that our democracy,
our capitalistic economy, and the protestant religion are all gifts of what he
called "the great frontier." Now that the frontier is used up, he felt that
all these things were in danger. So I invented the reefs as a means of
developing the presentation of an infinite new frontier. Once again, Fred
rewrote what I gave him, making changes and suggestions.
LM: Did any conflicts arise in the course of these collaborations?
JW: Rogue Star , which I did with Fred Pohl, turned out to be a different
story from the one I wanted to write. I still believe that story could have been
written more effectively if we had tried a different approach. I wanted to
write the story of the monster from its own viewpoint entirely and make it
sympathetic. I wrote the first draft of the story in that way, but Fred felt
that it didn't entirely work and insisted that we needed to include large parts
of the story from the viewpoint of the human being involved. The final results
turned out to be a pretty good story, but I've always regretted not being able
to see what would have resulted if we hadn't sacrificed my original premise.
LM: From "With Folded Hands" to
THE STARCHILD TRILOGY [1965-69] right up to
your story "Jamboree," your fiction has often dealt with the idea of people
being destroyed by supposedly benevolent machines or governments. What were the
origins of this fear back in "With Folded Hands," which is now recognized as
pioneering this idea?
JW: I wrote "With Folded Hands" immediately after World War II, when the
shadow of the atomic bomb had just fallen over SF and was just beginning to
haunt the imaginations of people in the US. The story grows out of that general
feeling that some of the technological creations we had developed with the best
intentions might have disastrous consequences in the long run (that idea, of
course, still seems relevant today). The notion I was consciously working on
specifically came out of a fragment of a story I had worked on for a while about
an astronaut in space who is accompanied by a robot obviously superior to him
physically—i.e., the robot wasn't hurt by gravity, extremes of temperature,
radiation, or whatever. Just looking at the fragment gave me the sense of how
inferior humanity is in many ways to mechanical creations. That basic
recognition was the essence of the story, and as I wrote it up in my notes the
theme was that the perfect machine would prove to be perfectly destructive.
LM: "With Folded Hands" seems to be another of your stories that has an
obvious social message but which can also be interpreted psychoanalytically;
there's this primal sense there of a child's rebellious reaction to being
protected by the mother, for example.
JW: That's certainly true, though once again it was only when I looked back at
the story much later on that I was able to realize that the emotional reach of
the story undoubtedly derived from my own early childhood, when people were
attempting to protect me from all those hazardous things a kid is going to
encounter in the isolated frontier setting I grew up in. As a result, I felt
frustrated and over protected by people whom I couldn't hate because I loved
them. A sort of psychological trap. Specifically, the first three years of my
life were spent on a ranch at the top of the Sierra Madre Mountains on the
headwaters of the Yaqui River in Senora, Mexico. There were no neighbors close,
and my mother was afraid of all sorts of things: that I might be kidnapped or
get lost, that I would be bitten by a scorpion and die (something she'd heard of
happening to Mexican kids), or that I might be caught by a mountain lion or a
bear. The house we were living in was primitive, with no door, only curtains,
and when she'd see bulls fighting outside, she couldn't see why invaders
wouldn't just charge into the house. She was terrified by this environment. My
father built a crib that became a psychological prison for me, particularly
because my mother apparently kept me in it too long, when I needed to get out
and crawl on the floor. I understand my mother's good intentions—the floor was
mud and there were scorpions crawling around, so she was afraid of what might
happen to me—but this experience produced in me a deep seated distrust of
benevolent protection. In retrospect, I'm certain I projected my fears and
suspicions of this kind of conditioning, and these projections became the
governing emotional principle of "With Folded Hands" and The Humanoids.
LM: So, really, the humanoids represent any kind of construction— whether it's a
machine, a urine test, a seat belt, or more abstract societal or familial
structures—whose protective instincts eventually become constrictive. That issue
seems timeless; you certainly see it debated today regarding governmental
intervention to "protect" its citizens from themselves.
JW: Exactly. And this conflict will always be present. In fact, as I've thought
about the relationship between the individual and society down through the
years I've come to feel that this issue provides the central plot tension in
most fiction. Fiction nearly always requires some kind of conflict to keep the
plot moving forward, and although there are a few simple stories about the
conflict between man and the physical environment, most truly sophisticated,
mature fiction gets its interest from presenting individuals in conflict
somehow with their society. Personal, even selfish desires versus the public
good, the needs of individuals for personal fulfillment versus the claims of
the society—you find this being worked out by writers over and over. For
instance, when I wrote my PhD dissertation on H.G. Wells, I began tracing the
way his own personal psychological development found expression in his fiction
(this was very clear particularly in his early work). I'm certain you could
find similar patterns in most writers.
LM: Did you get from Campbell the inspiration for having the robot guardians in
The Humanoids be defeated by psi powers? It's pretty well known that he was
very personally interested in these sorts of things.
JW: Yes, Campbell came up with the idea of that conclusion. He had gotten
interested in the work that Joseph Rhine was conducting in psi phenomena at Duke
University. I had written "With Folded Hands" without consultation with
Campbell at all. He liked it and accepted it for publication, but he suggested
that I look into Rhine. He was intrigued with the possibility that people might
develop the parapsychological powers that Rhine was interested in. I read a
couple of Rhine's books, and for a few days I was halfway persuaded that
parapsychological phenomena might be real and have practical applications. When
I went into the construction of The Humanoids, I was doing so partly convinced
that perfect machines could never be destroyed by any means at all. My initial
intentions were to conclude the books with the Humanoids learning (or being "mechanized" to learn) the parapyschological powers themselves, which they
would then use to completely brainwash the human beings. So the ending of the
novel was to be a tragic conclusion seen from the viewpoint of the people who
had been brainwashed into thinking they were happy. But my ending proved to be
ambiguous and unsatisfactory. I got reviews from probably 50 different
newspapers, and no two reviewers read the ending in the same way. In my sequel
to The Humanoids [The Humanoid Touch, 1980] I tried to work out an alternative.
LM: One of the central implications in The Humanoids is that technology is
advancing too fast—people's psychological and mental makeup haven't been able to
keep pace with our technological advances. This idea is repeated in Starchild
, where you have General Wheeler expressing the same opinion, and in
Bright New Universe . Does this still represent your personal view?
JW: Basically, although as I said earlier, I also feel we may have now become
too pessimistic about technological progress. I still accept Darwin's views
about this issue, although I realize many anthropologists ridicule Darwin
today. But I remain convinced that evolution has developed aggressive,
primordial instincts within us all and that these deep seated aggressive
tendencies are inherited. These instincts have always been a problem for
civilization to contend with, but things may have reached a crisis state
recently because technology has so increased our capacity to channel these
destructive feelings into catastrophic losses. That was already one of Wells's
favorite themes over 60 years ago; he perhaps dramatized it best in The Island
of Doctor Moreau, but it's evident in some of his later work as well. The point
is that aggressive behavioral tendencies are a very useful tool for evolving
organisms up to a point. The ideal would be for us to find suitably healthy ways
for these violent and erotic aspects to express themselves. Literature might be
one of these, in a certain sense. Unfortunately, right now aggressive
individuals have nuclear weapons, so it's now conceivable that we could
terminate the entire process of evolution permanently.
LM: This relationship of individual freedom opposing socially constrictive
systems lies at the center of other popular genres in America—the detective and
western genres, for example.
JW: We are all born naked, screaming animals, needing to be humanized and
civilized by society. We live in a precarious compromise between our animal
needs and our social lives. We don't create ourselves, we can't exist alone, we
have to be members of society, as parts of some family group or nation or
humanity. But all our satisfactions and joys we participate in individually.
This seems to ensure that there will always be a never ending conflict between
society and the needs of the individual. In Western society we're in danger
because we've over exaggerated the freedom of the individual. I contrast that
with what I know of socialist countries, especially China, in which the
societal good is more highly valued, where children from early on are socialized
and led to sacrifice everything for the sake of the state or party. This seems
to be working relatively well, and I suspect that this will be the shape of the
future. I personally regret this prospect because I value the individual freedom
we have here in the US and I can see this being obliterated in the next century
LM: In Bright New Universe you develop a related opposition between a romantic,
Rousseau like vision of humanity's essentially "good nature" versus the
classical, Hobbesian view that we are an inherently "evil" and animal like
species which needs societal control.
JW: "Good" and "evil" are relative terms. Human beings are born formless
and are shaped both by their instincts and by family, school, society, and all
sorts of other things. Of course, it's the instinctual, aggressive urges and
tendencies that are likely to manifest themselves in what people might call "evil" ways but these are just as
"natural" as what will be termed "good"
results. Robert Ardrey has a chapter in African Genesis called "The Romantic
Fallacy"—the fallacy being that human reason will make the world better, that
the evolution of goodness happens naturally. He criticizes the founders of
American democracy and the Marxists for following Rousseau and his mistaken
belief that people are born good and then corrupted by evil influences. I've
already indicated that I tend toward the classicist position: that much of our
goodness and value is preserved in society, that it doesn't spontaneously occur
in the individual but has to be taught and learned to shape individuals to
whatever they are is going to be. I feel that the theater of evolution has
shifted from the individual organism or family to larger societal units, that
the struggle to survive is now between larger groups. The ones that are most
aggressive and least merciful—the "cruelest," you might say—are going to
prevail in the end. This runs contrary to Rousseau and other liberal dogmas, and
its pessimism probably places me more on the side of Hobbes.
LM: And yet a lot of your heroes seem to be romantic individualists while the
bad guys are the repressive classicists.
JW: True. Certainly I'm an individualist myself and have always tended to be
suspicious of society and its control, wanting to do my own thing in my own way.
But I can't help but realize that there are necessary limits all societies must
place on individual behavior. Total freedom can be as hazardous and
destructive to the individual (and maybe to the entire species) as total
LM: In Bright New Universe and especially in
THE STARCHILD TRILOGY, you
investigate the idea that our conception of life and intelligence in the
universe is far too limited—a view expressed even in your earliest stories. Was Stapledon a major influence in these later works? Your presentation of the
sentient sun in Starchild, for example, seems like something right out of
JW: I rate Stapledon very highly, but I can't document his specific influence.
I know I was interested in putting intelligence into all things in very early
works, long before I became acquainted with Stapledon's works. In a planned,
early collaboration with Merritt, for example, I was working with the notion of
a sentient mountain—it was a kind of primitive "animism" (as anthropologists
would call it), attributing sentience to trees, rocks, and so on. I'm not sure I
embrace this sort of mystic animism myself in a serious, conscious way, although
I've been exploring variations of this idea throughout my work. That vision of
the universe in THE STARCHILD TRILOGY, where the entire mass of the steady state
universe is gradually revealed to be, in a sense, a sentient being, is an
outgrowth of this infantile animism by which the child or the primitive can
impute life to sticks and stones. I've been interested for a long time in
theories of computers and other forms of artificial intelligence, and wondering
what would be the most efficient possible computer storage device; it's
occurred to me that a change of state of single atoms—the shift of spin,
perhaps—would be the most economical way to store information. This would make
it possible to get a scientific basis for animism, for putting intelligence into
everything, even into atoms.
LM: In your study H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress, you say that the evolution
and progress of civilization has been SF's most exciting theme. What do you base
that judgment on?
JW: SF was the first genre to take advantage of Darwin's understanding of
change as progress. Wells was the pioneer in this regard; by relying on Thomas
Huxley's interpretation of Darwin's theory of evolution, he uncovered a way of
looking into the future in an intelligent and realistic way. People, of course,
had always been concerned with understanding and predicting the future; but SF
writers, relying on Darwinian insights, have been able to construct fictional
visions of the future that are much better based. SF authors who used his
methods were opening up windows into possible futures that had never been
looked through before.
LM: Do you accept, then, the inevitability of the frightening vision Wells gives
us at the end of The Time Machine—the Time Traveler confronting our collective
demise courtesy of a mechanistic universe governed by entropy? Is there no way
to introduce ourselves into a process of synthesis in some way?
JW: As far as I can see, human life is pretty much irrelevant in the cosmos.
The changes in the cosmos that we see nowadays are the result of the Big Bang,
the turbulent explosion of energy condensing into matter, into planets and suns
and galaxies. Man, together with all life, has thus arrived here as a result of
natural, and probably fairly common, processes. The cosmos itself runs on,
endlessly transforming itself, not knowing or caring what happens to us. We're
just here, in other words, as a result of an adaptive evolutionary process. The
forms that adapt most successfully—no matter what the rest of the cosmos is
doing—are the ones that survive. The ones that didn't adapt successfully aren't
here any longer. That was part of what I was pointing to in Bright New Universe
and in THE STARCHILD TRILOGY— that we've got to be willing to join the
processes of cosmic evolution or eventually we'll be destroyed.
LM: Is it still possible for any editor or literary figure to exert the kind of
guidance and influence over the SF field in the way that Campbell was able to?
JW: It's not possible for any editor to dominate the field in the way that
Campbell did during the first dozen years of his editorship, from 1938 to 1950,
simply because the field has become too large. The great bulk of SF nowadays is
being published in book form, especially in paperback houses; the magazine
market isn't as important. An editor such as Don Wohlheim has a lot of
influence in that he buys about a book a week for DAW books and selects these to
fit a pretty narrow, specific pattern. But that is only a slice—50 books a year
out of a field of around 1000. Then, too, you don't have the continuity of
editorships that produces widespread influences. Many of the editors today are
young, ambitious types who are willing to jump from one publishing house to
another if this will help them move up the publishing ladder. The big change in
the field is the way it has diversified so rapidly. Look at the dozens and
dozens of subdivisions of SF forms today— no one editor could dominate it.
LM: Have you had a chance to work with any other media, like television or movie
JW: Not with much success. I wrote one or two movie scripts that were never
produced. One of my stories was bought by American International but was never
made into a movie. A couple of others have been optioned. "With Folded Hands"
was bought by STAR TREK once, and I worked with A.E. van Vogt on the script for
a long time, trying to get something acceptable. Gene Roddenberry liked the
last script version I did, but somebody in the network turned it down. I've
discovered in my dealings with Hollywood that it is practically impossible for
anyone in Portales to work for television successfully. You need to know what
effects they can create and what they can't, who they have on the payroll to
play what roles, and who likes this or doesn't like that. There are all sorts of
production details that you can't know unless you are right there on the spot.
The same thing applied to working on the comic strip I did with Lee Elias. I was
here in Portales sending Lee material in New York, and ultimately that got to be
a problem. There were a variety of things in Beyond Mars (our best known strip)
I wanted to do that the editor felt shouldn't be done or that Lee said he
couldn't do; so there had to be constant compromises between my notion of what
to do, the editorial direction, and the limits of the visual medium. When you
get into television, it is more completely creation by committee, and I don't
think committees are very bright. It is only rarely in the movies that one
individual has had complete control of what he was doing and done it
brilliantly, as Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane and Kubrick did in 2001.
LM: What prompted your entry into academic life in the 1950s?
JW: Part of it involved practical considerations. Up until I began writing the
comic strip Beyond Mars, I had always been a free lance writer, depending on
irregular checks; but while I was working on Beyond Mars, I began receiving a
weekly check, which spoiled me, I suppose. When the strip was killed, the loss
of security distressed me. At the same time, I was also feeling that the SF
field had moved ahead of me, that there were brilliant new writers more able
than I was. Fearing that unless I did something perhaps my time had passed, I
started taking courses at Eastern New Mexico University in math and electronics
to improve my science background. When I had an opportunity to get a graduate
assistantship in English, I accepted and found that I enjoyed teaching and
enjoyed the students. It was wonderful to be paid for reading good literature
and talking about it.
LM: As much as anyone in the field, you seem to have been responsible for
helping get SF accepted in the academic community.
JW: I've tried, although it's been a long uphill battle. Even today there are
still a lot of academics who look down on the field but the movement has been
growing—slowly, but steadily. The first SF course that I know of was taught by
Mark Hillegas at Colgate in 1962. This course was written up in The National
Observer, and when I showed this description to the people at Eastern, I managed
to persuade them to let me start my own in 1964. Late in the 1960s, I became
interested in the spread of the field. Since I was receiving so much
information about the various new courses, I decided to put together a talk
about the academic responses to SF for a convention in California, describing
the courses and library resources that I had heard of. Then at a meeting of the SFRA in 1970, I passed around a questionnaire and got people to report to me
descriptions of their courses. I kept this up for four or five years until I had
some 500 descriptions of courses that had been taught at the college level in
the US and Canada. I wound up distributing about 1700 copies of this list, which
was intended to be used in convincing college chairmen and curriculum committees
that the whole business was legitimate.
LM: Whom you regard as the most significant SF writer?
JW: Naturally the first name that occurs to me is Wells. Admittedly, most of the
later Wells was more or less journalistic propaganda, produced for his times;
but his brilliant early SF set standards that are still in place today. It's
those dark, imaginative early works—The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds,
and so on—that will live longest. I would say that Bob Heinlein is the most
important American SF writer. I realize that certain liberal academics tend to
scorn him, but he's produced a remarkable and influential body of work and he
still has a wide and enthusiastic readership. Arthur Clarke is another major
figure. I was very impressed by Brian Aldiss's Malacia Tapestry; he's probably
getting the best critical reception of anyone writing in England these days.
Chip Delany, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula Le Guin are all now getting
international recognition as leading literary figures, although some of the
things they do are a little too far out for my own personal tastes. Their works
illustrate that if we apply Sturgeon's Law—that 90 percent of everything is
crap—you'll find that the best ten percent of SF is as good as the best ten
percent of anything written. Of the contemporary SF novels I've read, the one
that stands out to my mind is Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. A very
LM: What was your response as both an SF author and as a layman when Neil
Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the Moon in 1968?
JW: Of course I was enormously excited. We had been writing about space travel
in general—and had imagined landing on the Moon, in particular—since the
beginning of the genre. And then here it was, really happening. Almost 60 years
earlier I had written one of my first novel length stories (a collaboration
with Miles J. Breuer) involving the colonization of the Moon ["The Birth of a
New Republic," 1930]. Now I could compare my predictions of 1930 with what was
actually occurring up there.
LM: Will the recent discoveries about Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury in some
way actually discourage some SF writers? After all, it is no longer possible to
write stories about invasions from Mars or life on Jupiter and Venus. Is the
Space Program's ability to de romanticize our vision of the Solar System and
space generally a danger to a genre so long associated with romance?
JW: It kills a lot of romantic dreams and transforms a lot of previous SF into
fantasy. But our own Solar System is only one of an infinite number of similar
systems, so there is still plenty of room for SF authors to operate within. You
know, there was a feeling very briefly after Sputnik that our space developments
might help the popularity of SF, but that didn't happen. When people were
reading about space travel in the newspapers, they weren't interested in reading
fictional accounts of it.
LM: Which of your works seems most successful to you now?
JW: My most successful story, and I guess my favorite, is "With Folded Hands."
This is one story that seemed to come out exactly as I wanted it to, which made
a strong impact, and said something that will be remembered. The sequel to that
story, The Humanoids, has been the most successful novel in terms of sales and
translations. But, as I said earlier, the ending is ambiguous and I don't feel
it's completely successful artistically. Darker Than You Think is another novel
that came out well and that has been reasonably popular. In recent years, I
probably am most pleased with The Moon Children , but I was disappointed
it didn't do better with the public The same is true of The Power of Blackness
 and of the more recent Brother to Demons, Brother to God .
LM: Obviously SF has changed a lot since the pulp era, in which you started your
career. Do you think the increasing literary and scientific sophistication of a
lot of SF is, in a sense, a betrayal of its populist roots?
JW: This is a matter for the individual writer and individual reader. The
wonderful thing about a field like SF is that there is room for lots of
different people and approaches. So I don't feel it's appropriate to say what
should or shouldn't be. People can write with varying degrees of literary
sophistication and find readers enough to support them. I have always attempted
to make my own SF accessible to my readers, to work from the familiar and make
it easy for anyone who was interested to get into the story. Maybe because of my
own background of writing commercial SF for so many years, I have a great deal
of respect for good craftsmanship of the sort that commercial writers must
develop. The labels you hear so much of—"commercial," "serious writer,"
"mainstream," "hack," "New Wave," "experimental"—are usually very
misleading. No matter how "serious" the intentions of authors are, they can't
communicate anything without craftsmanship. This is one reason I've always
admired writers such as Somerset Maugham and J.P. Marquand. You can see the
skilled, practical, conscious literary craftsmanship underlying their literary
art. The same is true for some of the great mystery writers like Chandler and
Hammett, who developed their writing in popular genres with great artistry and
skill. In my own field, Ed Hamilton and Hank Kuttner and more recently Bob
Silverberg are all writers who formed a fine command of the SF genre early in
their careers and who later on used this to do work that is more consciously "literary" and hence more admired by critics. But certainly the writing they
did earlier was deservedly popular among SF fandom, who evidently found these
works "serious" enough to merit reading.
I am opposed, however, to literary tricks that tend towards obscurity or
artificial difficulty, though I can see arguments for that kind of approach.
My own experience as a teacher of writing confirms my sense that new authors
with artistic ambitions may find themselves scorning too many of the old forms
and patterns simply because they blindly associate them with hack work. The
point is that these patterns and structures form the basic vocabulary through
which all SF writers must speak. That's one reason I'm not completely
sympathetic with contemporary writers like Silverberg and Chip Delany and Tom
Disch, who are clearly aiming to get themselves recognized as "serious" or
mainstream authors. I still feel that in terms of developing a literary
reputation, the odds remain with the writer who is writing for the mass
audience, the way Shakespeare or Dickens or Dostoyevsky were.
I once listened to an artist from Taos who deliberately painted puzzles into
his pictures because he thought that if people would stand and look at them,
trying to understand them, he would have a longer time to work on their
emotions; whereas, if they understood everything at a glance, they would go on
to the next picture. To some extent, the same sort of thing can happen in
literature. If you can create the kinds of puzzles that will draw readers into
your work rather than making them move on to the next one, this can be a
legitimate approach. On the other hand, I've always preferred the artist who
paints a canvas whose beauty is more or less obvious at first glance—but which
keeps drawing you back for another look.
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