Sci-Fi Writers Are Predicting the Future. Who’s Listening?
In the spring of 2011, when protests organized on social media broke out across the Middle East, most people were caught flat-footed. One person who wasn’t was science fiction writer Walter Jon Williams, whose novel Deep State had imagined exactly that scenario.
“It turns out to be that I predicted a lot of things that actually did happen,” Williams says in Episode 326 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
Ironically, Williams heard repeated complaints that the book “wasn’t science fiction,” because its predictions had already come true. “The book came out the week that the Arab Spring kicked off,” he says. “So basically the book became obsolete the day it appeared.”
Unfortunately for Williams, his foresight didn’t result in instant stardom. “My agent called every media outlet in New York, but none of them were interested,” he says. “Possibly the fact that I was a science fiction writer would have put them off.”
However, the accuracy of his predictions did get attention within the government.
“I did get some calls from agencies that will remain nameless, in our nation’s capital, asking me how I knew,” he says. “So there was some interest from that quarter.”
Listen to the complete interview with Walter Jon Williams in Episode 326 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Walter Jon Williams on tyranny:
“Aristoi, my book from 1992, is about a glamorous and functional aristocracy. I was responding to Francis Fukuyama‘s ‘The End of History,’ where he suggested that from now on it’s just going to be liberal democracies all the way down, as it were. And so, because I’m a perverse contrarian, I thought, ‘I’m going to find a way to make absolute tyranny not only logical, but necessary,’ and I did. … They have control of gravity, which means you can cause things to fly apart, which wouldn’t be healthy for children or other living things. So yes, there has to be an absolute control on that. On the other hand, it is an egalitarian tyranny to the extent that anyone can become a tyrant—there’s just a very rigid series of exams that you have to pass.”
Walter Jon Williams on the Taos Toolbox writers workshop:
“I teach it with Nancy Kress, and with guest speakers like George R. R. Martin and Carrie Vaughn. … There was a period where a whole lot of my friends were going into MFA programs, and I was thinking of doing it myself, just as a more stable way of earning a living. And then I thought, ‘Well, if I get an MFA there’s only a 20 percent chance that I’ll ever be employed, and odds are it’s going to be at a liberal arts college in the small-town Midwest, and I won’t want to live there anyway, so I’ll just start my own, and that’s what I did. So I basically started my own college in a ski town in northern New Mexico, and it has been a great success. We’ve had a bunch of absolutely terrific graduates—Kelly Robson, Saladin Ahmed, the list goes on and on.”
Walter Jon Williams on NASA:
“When astronauts carry stuff up into orbit they have to provide a list, and Mike Fincke is a science fiction reader, so he took one of my books up, and NASA people noticed this in his file. One of the things that the NASA ground crew likes to do is make sure the astronauts aren’t bored, so we had a surprise meeting, on video, with each other. He was just told, ‘You’re going to talk to somebody interesting.’ We ended up, when he got back to Earth, doing some hanging out. He was a guest speaker at the Nebula weekend a few years ago—which I managed to get him the gig for that. … He spent the first three days just watching the people who were there, and watching them interact, so that we would know how to get to them, how to address his conversation to that particular audience, and he did a brilliant job of it.”
Walter Jon Williams on his novel Quillifer:
“What I never understood about a lot of fantasy is that, if magic is actually all this potent, why the magicians aren’t actually running everything? And I wanted to be in a world where the magicians aren’t running everything, because my hero is not a magician. So I decided to go back to some Renaissance ideas of how magic worked. Their idea was that in order for magic to work, the magician has to be in a state of ritual purity—so he has to isolate himself and fast and chant and pray, and whatever other ceremonies there are, and then the spell itself might take days to cast. So you can’t be an evil dictator and every so often just say, ‘Excuse me, I have to go chant for 12 days now,’ because somebody would just stick a knife into you in the middle of that spell-casting, and that would be the end of you.”
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