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After 75 years of publishing, Jack Williamson is SF's Grandest Master

By Kathie Huddleston

J ack Williamson has been a storyteller for longer than most people have been alive. The 94-year-old Williamson may have started as a brash young man who wanted to try his hand at "scientifiction," but he's gone on to become one of the most revered science-fiction writers of all time.

Born in 1908, Williamson traveled in a covered wagon to New Mexico, where he grew up on an isolated farm. He began his career in 1928, when he sold his first story, "The Metal Man," to the only "scientifiction" or science-fiction magazine that existed, Amazing Stories.

It's been 74 years of writing astounding fiction for Williamson. Some of his key works include the Legion of Space series, the Seetee series, the Humanoids series and the novels The Legion of Time and Darker Than You Think. Williamson might well have decided to slow down after his Grand Master Award in 1976, the second ever presented by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Instead, he has continued to publish compelling fiction, including the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novella "The Ultimate Earth" (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, December 2000). Recent works include Spider Island: The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson (Volume 4), Dragon's Island and Other Stories, Terraforming Earth, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of 2001, the upcoming Seventy Five and the new novelette, "The Baby Black Hole," not yet published.

Williamson chatted with Science Fiction Weekly about being 94 years old, his dreams and why he may not write any more novels.

You started writing before the term "science fiction" was even coined, and you really helped invent science fiction the way it is now. Looking back, what are your thoughts about this incredible journey that you've taken?

Williamson: Well, it's been a great life, through exciting [times]. I've watched science fiction change. I've been able to pioneer a few ideas. I'm surprised that I'm still alive and still able to write. It meant so much to me to get the John W. Campbell Award for Terraforming Earth.

I understand that you invented the term "terraforming?"

Williamson: The OED gives me credit for inventing it. I used to claim I'd been first to use the term genetic engineering, in my novel Dragon's Island, published in 1951, but now I understand that some scientist beat me by a couple of years.

Claiming firsts can be risky, but in vitro insemination is described in The Girl from Mars, published in 1929. The space habitat, rotated to simulate gravity, is invented in "The Prince of Space," [which was published in] 1931. There are organ banks and organ transplants in The Reefs of Space, a novel I wrote with Fred Pohl several years before the first heart transplant. My Seetee stories, revised for Seetee Ship, were the first fiction about antimatter.

You wrote a lot of stuff before anybody got there.

Williamson: When I got into the game, I was one of very few players. Every idea seemed to be worth a new story. Nowadays, fresh ideas are harder to find.

What do you think over the years has driven you as a writer?

Williamson: I guess curiosity more than anything else. I grew up on a hardscrabble farm in the middle of the depression. Got out of a country high school with no job, no money and no future. My life was saved when I discovered Gernsback's Amazing Stories in 1926, the year it was launched. There were stories about travel in space, travel in time, new inventions, wonderful futures. Totally fascinated with all those possible new worlds, I started writing on my own. I'm still at it. I still feel that the future's exciting to speculate about. I'm curious about the origins of the universe, the origins of life, the limits of space. All sorts of possibilities. I see science as a sort of mystery story about the nature and meaning of the universe. I read science magazines and try to keep up. There's the feeling that the story keeps unfolding, a new chapter every day.

What has surprised you most in your career so far?

Williamson: Oh, I couldn't say. There are always surprises. The future's never really what we might have predicted or expected. People worry about disasters that never come. Those that do come are commonly unpredicted, or they might have been prevented.

Do you worry about the human race?

Williamson: I expect bad times to come, but the human race is a hardy species. We've lived through all sorts of disasters. Worse times may come, but I expect we'll survive. I try to be an optimist.

You won the Hugo and a Nebula for "The Ultimate Earth" last year. How does that feel to you at this point in your career?

Williamson: Of course, I'm very happy about it. Nobody could have been predicted it for a guy 94 years old. It's a wonderful surprise.

Were you surprised that the novella was so well received?

Williamson: I was immensely pleased. It's wonderful to have friends. It's wonderful to have readers. It's wonderful to have recognition. And hard to believe I really earned it.

But obviously a lot of people thought the story was worthy of the award.

Williamson: Well, I try to tell myself that.

What are you working on right now?

Williamson: I've just finished a new novelette called "The Baby Black Hole." About 10,000 words. I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out. I may never do another novel, but I'm turning over ideas for something I want to try. Working title, Bones of Empire. It began with a dream. I have a cast of characters, a setting, the beginning of a story line. It looks fresh enough to tempt me. I'm happiest when I have something going. It helps me stay alive.

Is it hard to write novels?

Williamson: A novel is for me a couple of years of hard work. I need a really compelling idea before I plunge into it. A novel is a challenge, very different from the short story. If science fiction is a literature of ideas, as we used to say, a novel should engage some question of serious interest. Jim Gunn said a long time ago that the novelette is the best length for science fiction because it has space to develop the characters and the idea and pose the question, but doesn't have to answer the question. A novel should. It's hard to come up with final answers to big questions.

Are you planning more collections? You just came out with your fourth.

Williamson: Haffner Press has been bringing out beautiful volumes that I'm immensely proud of. The fifth will be called Seventy Five. It's due out next year, on the 75th anniversary of my first publication. A sort of memorial collection.

What's the one thing as a writer you have not done yet?

Williamson: Had a million-dollar bestseller [laughs]. Not much chance of that, but I'm pretty happy with the life I've had.

What do you think your biggest challenge has been in your career?

Williamson: It's hard to say. I wish I'd been brighter. I used to wish I had a better education. The science fiction field is always changing. Younger people with better minds and better educations keep coming into it. The competition is been pretty stiff. But I think competition is good for us. I shouldn't really grieve about it. I've had good friends, good editors and loyal readers. Looking back, I can be happy with the way things have gone.

Of all the stuff you've written, what's your favorite?

Williamson: I suppose Darker Than You Think. It was published as a novelette in John W. Campbell's old Unknown, written in 1940. I rewrote it in the late '40s in the novel length. It's been reprinted a number of times.

Why is that one your favorite?

Williamson: For one thing, it's been well received. The World Fantasy organization gave me a lifetime achievement largely in honor of it. It says something about my life, I think. I wrote it while I was under psychoanalysis and discovering myself. The hero is a newspaperman who discovers that he's a werewolf. It's a fantasy, but I think it's a symbolic reflection of my own experience. It meant something to me.

Is there any piece that you've written that you feel has been overlooked?

Williamson: I think all my best stuff has got into print. I've had things that didn't work and stories that didn't work as well as I hoped, but I'm pretty happy with things as they are. I might have sold more copies, been more famous, let's say, but I have no reason for complaint.

What do you think your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

Williamson: I've been trying a long time to learn to write. I've developed a certain amount of craftsmanship. I think all writers need a sort of lunatic persistence and a sort of egotism or belief that what they want to say is worth somebody else's time. I grew up the oldest sibling on an isolated farm and ranch, with no childhood friends. I lived in my own imagination. Writing still lets me do that. I've been fortunate to find that I can sell my daydreams.

Can you think of any weaknesses in your writing?

Williamson: If I knew what they were, I'd try to correct them. I wish I had more ability than I have, a broader early education, but it's hard to be specific about what I need.

When you look back at all the things you've written, what themes do you see?

Williamson: I suppose just a fascination with the universe and the possibilities of discovery. Exploring life, possible universes, possible futures.

What's your writing process?

Williamson: You need something that you want to say. That's first of all. And you need to be excited about it. When an idea comes, it's plastic, flexible. It's easy to set it into some sort of frame with structure and conflicts and imagine characters to symbolize the conflicts. In the beginning, it's all pretty fluid. The longer you work at it, turn possibilities into realities into symbols, the stronger it gets. It's easy to change a plot or a storyline or a character when you begin, but after you work on it for a while, it becomes as real as your own life and difficult to change. Many times I've got stuck on the wrong track, with an idea that didn't work out, and had to give it up.

Do you still write every day?

Williamson: Usually. I need to have something going. I'm still teaching a college class every year. I have a special studies student this summer. She's working on a thesis about the women in my work. Living alone since my wife died in 1985, I've tried not to become a hermit. I try to live in the real world as much as I can.

What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?

Williamson: I enjoy being a writer. It's a bit difficult sometimes to find an idea that you're enthusiastic about. But when I have a story going, why, it's not really difficult to carry on with it. I dream about it, I think about it, no matter what else I'm doing. I want to write. I want it thought out before I forget it, so it's part of my life. It's something that is a matter of mindset or habit that I enjoy doing.

What do you think is the secret to continuing to write well after so many stories, so many worlds and so many characters?

Williamson: Once I told my analyst that my creativity came from a bad memory, but he didn't take me seriously. I've always lived in daydreams. A story fades out when it is done, and I have to invent a new one. The real secret may be just curiosity. I'm fascinated with science, with the universe, with what could be, what could happen. A great drama that never ends. A search for answers that always come with more tantalizing questions.

Not very many people would say at 94 they're excited about their careers anymore. Most people would retire.

Williamson: I retired from full-time teaching in 1975, but I've kept on writing. I need to keep on dreaming.

And you still teach. As a teacher and a writer, what advice do you have for new writers who are just starting out?

Williamson: First of all, writing is not easy for most people. You need sort of an obsessive urge to write and something you need to say. Then the craftsmanship to say it well. Learn how a story works. Learn how language works. I've studied linguistics and taught linguistics. I'm fascinated with the processes of language.

How would you say science fiction is different today than it was in the beginning?

Williamson: When I began, there was only one magazine, Gernsback's Amazing. He began by reprinting the classics of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe. He saw science fiction as a way of teaching science. He wanted science in his stories, but he didn't pay a great deal of money for stories. That made an opening for beginners like me. Most of the early readers were either technicians or kids. There was still an optimistic attitude about progress and the future that faded away when the atom bomb fell and pollution became a problem. We looked forward to the future with an enthusiasm that's a little bit more difficult now.

How has the marketplace changed? You had one magazine back then. We don't have that many magazines now.

Williamson: Just a few magazines, and sometimes I think they're in trouble. But there's a book market that didn't exist then. Science fiction as "sci-fi" has become a major item for movies and television. The audience has changed. The whole atmosphere has changed. The ideas that used to excite me, travel in space and genetic engineering, life on other worlds, they are old hat now.

Overall, are you happy with the level of science fiction right now?

Williamson: Actually, I don't read a great deal of it. But the world is changing, sometimes so fast it's frightening. We need to keep ahead. We'll always need to look out for the impacts and consequence of new technologies. That's what science fiction does. New writers will keep on coming to carry it on.

Are there any new authors on the horizon you're impressed with?

Williamson: I don't really keep up with them. I do read a lot of book reviews. I'm a judge in the Writers of the Future Contest. I see new work there. It's always exciting to find a promising new writer.

What do you think of the new Internet market for writers?

Williamson: I'm old-fashioned. I prefer hard print. I have very few things published on the Internet. It hasn't yet come up to its first promise. No doubt it will, but a lot will have to change. I'm still writing for print and watching the Internet from a distance.

How do you think modern times compare with what you expected from the future when you first got into science fiction?

Williamson: I never knew what to expect. Science fiction explores possibilities, I like to say, instead of making predictions. So I was always fascinated with what might come, but I don't have any firm expectations at all. I'm convinced that whatever does come will be unexpected.

What's the coolest invention, the most amazing thing in your lifetime?

Williamson: The biggest thing, I guess, has been the electronic revolution. The computer, the Internet and the satellite system. Of course, the exploration of space has been exciting. When the Voyager was going out to explore the planets, I got invited to NASA to watch the images of the planets and their moons come in. That was a high time in my life. Science fiction coming true. I got several novels out of it.

Would you have liked to go up in space?

Williamson: When I was younger, I would have been excited to make the adventure. I'm pretty happy here on Earth right now.

Do you think you'll ever retire?

Williamson: Not if I can help it. Of course, I'm getting older. My brain is slowing down. My body's slowing down. I realize life can't go on forever. I'm alive and dreaming, so I'll keep writing as long as I can.

In your autobiography, Wonder's Child: My Life in Science Fiction, you talk about being a child of wonder. Are you still, at 94, a child of wonder?

Williamson: I guess as much as I ever was. I still wonder about science and the cosmos, things to come. Sometimes the future looks alarming, but I always look for good outcomes. I want the human story to have a happy ending. I have faith in mankind.

As a kid, did you ever imagine your life would turn out this way?

Williamson: No. I've just blundered though life. Tried to cope when I could. Early on, for the first 15 or 20 years of my writing career, I was earning barely enough to let me keep on writing science fiction, but that was what I wanted to do. So I really have no complaints.

What are your interests when you're not writing?

Williamson: I have good friends and loving relatives. I enjoy my students and the classes I teach. I subscribe to a good many science magazines and try to keep up with astronomy and genetic science. I read a little detective and mystery fiction. The mystery story depends on plot. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. I admire the art of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and their peers. I read a little history. I've just finished Carnage and Culture. It's devoted to the theory that Western civilization has triumphed over other cultures through the ages because it made people efficient killers. The author, Victor Davis Hanson, makes a very convincing case through studies of nine great battles, ranging from the fall of the Persian Empire down to World War II. The past doesn't exactly repeat itself, but it's the best guide we have to what could come.

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