Monday, June 15, 2009

Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson's acclaimed novel Spin won the Hugo Award in 2006. He won the Philip K. Dick Award for his debut novel A Hidden Place; Canada’s Aurora Award for Darwinia; and the John W. Campbell Award for The Chronoliths.

His new book, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, releases later this month. From his Q &A with Brian Francis Slattery at the Tor website:

Brian Francis Slattery: One of the things about Julian Comstock that I really enjoyed was that, in many ways, you wrote a pre-20th century novel—which, of course, totally matches the content in several important ways. But why did you decide to do this? I ask in part because there’s a certain bravery in going back to the 19th and 18th centuries for literary inspiration, given that your readers are reared on 20th-century expectations; also, by choosing such a specific style, certain stylistic and thematic doors close—and others open. What did the style—and your narrator in particular—allow you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

Robert Charles Wilson: I came at the idea sideways, in a sense. When I first considered writing a novel set one hundred and fifty years into a radically depleted future, I tried to get a feeling for what a century and a half really means in terms of change (and not just technological change) in America. So I started immersing myself in mid-19th century American popular literature as a kind of depth gauge. Basically asking the question: What’s the cultural distance between then and now, and can I build a comparable degree of change into my book?

I’m not talking about classic literature but long-forgotten topical and popular novels—the kind of thing you have to hunt down at or read in PDF at archival sites. Weird stuff like George Lippard’s creepy The Quaker City, or Eugene Batchelder’s A Romance of the Sea Serpent, a novel in verse about a monster that attacks shipping in Boston Harbor and subsequently gets invited to a Harvard commencement. Seriously.

But the real galvanizing moment for me was when I stumbled across a series of six boys’ books written just as the Civil War was winding down, the so-called Army-Navy series by Oliver Optic. (Oliver Optic, a.k.a. William Taylor Adams, was a hugely successful writer in his day, author of over a hundred books and a household name for many American families. The better-remembered Horatio Alger was an Oliver Optic wannabe.) Read those books and you get the impression of a genuinely kindly, well-meaning, often naïve author trying to introduce young readers to the world they would inhabit as adults—and a pretty ugly world it was. Internecine warfare, slavery, rampant racism, mob justice: Have fun, kids!

For instance, in one of the books, during a naval battle, the 17-year-old narrator says, “A cannonball nipped off the head of the man standing next to me. This was so irregular that I did not know quite what to do.” It’s funny and ghastly at the same time. It’s like Guernica repainted by Norman Rockwell. And I thought it would be a great way to tell a story about a post-collapse 22nd-century America.[read on]
Visit Robert Charles Wilson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue