The Mirrored Heavens by debut author David J. Williams is described by Stephen Baxter as “Tom Clancy interfacing Bruce Sterling.” Williams combines future technology and espionage with a richly imagined political climate, with action and mordant humor to spare. The main characters–the Razor (hacker) Claire Haskell and the Mech (assassin) Jason Marlowe hunt the terrorist group Autumn Rain through virtual and real worlds, not sure who to trust–even their own memories. The book is a rollercoaster ride, but Williams’ future is grimy and intense–this isn’t shiny new gadgets–and there is a serious exploration of the clash between the developing world and the first world.
Mr. Williams, fellow DC dweller and my occasional drinking buddy, graciously agreed to be interviewed for BSC.
Craig Gidney – Describe your world and technology: What is a Razor? What is the Elevator?
David J. Williams – The Elevator: The Phoenix Space Elevator is the joint construction of the superpowers, and is intended to accelerate the transfer of industry to space (thereby saving the world from further eco-meltdown). It gets nuked by Autumn Rain in the first 50 pages, which does nothing for international stability.
Razors: My version of netrunners. They hack the net (which I call the zone).
Mechs: Short for mechanic—i.e., assassin. They’re the physical ass-kickers. They knock down doors and shoot people.
The razor/mech partnership (agents work in pairs) is thus fraught with tension. The razor clearly has the upper hand, since he/she is the one manipulating the identity of the mech, allowing them to get inside whatever fortress/strongpoint they’re trying to infiltrate. But no self-respecting mech ever trusts their razor further than they can kick ’em . . . and no self-respecting razor ever tells their mech everything about What’s Really Going On.
Craig Gidney – The specter of terrorism runs throughout the book. (Plus, you live in DC—Intelligence Central!) Was the book a conscious reaction to 9/11?
David J. Williams – On one level, no. I started writing it back in 2000. And for at least a year after 9-11, I figured the book would never see the light of day, because there was basically NO appetite for anything involving terrorists. Using the “T-word” was a great way to render your fiction unpublishable. (Even now, the terrorists Autumn Rain are referred to as “insurgents” on the back-cover.)
But on another level, the answer’s yes. Because as the Long War/War on Terror dragged on, I realized that what I was writing couldn’t have been more allegorical if I planned it that way. The aftermath of an attack . . . the suspense as to whether we’ll see another . . . the fallout a society suffers when it embarks on an endless war . . . it’s all there, unfortunately.
Craig Gidney – The political climate of your future world is scarily plausible. How did you construct it?
David J. Williams – Shit, for a moment I thought you’d written SCARCELY plausible. I’m thinking, yikes, hardball interviewer. : ) I think one of the reasons why my future world feels so real is that anyone who’s older than about 25 has already been there. We’ve already had one Cold War. Why not a second? I was essentially combining the East vs. West dynamic I remembered growing up with the rise of a new kind of warfare, one that’s in it’s infancy right now. Regardless of what you think of the current missile defense program, the fact remains that such technologies (e.g., speed-of-light weaponry, space-based hardware, etc.) will mature across the next several decades. What would happen if that development was to coincide with the rise of a new Eastern superpower that made the U.S.S.R. look like a bunch of kindergarteners?
Craig Gidney – Like Ian McDonald (Brasyl, River of Gods) you have an interest in exploring the interface between technology, capitalism and developing nations. Where did this interest come from? Do you have any predictions or insights?
David J. Williams – I’m a history junkie. And I was drawn to science fiction (both as a reader and a writer) because I always saw it as a kind of future history. And if you approach that future with a historian’s training (though keep in mind I chickened out of grad school), you can start to see connections that maybe get missed otherwise. So, with regards to developing nations, I was trying to extrapolate two separate trends. One is that, as the Earth’s environment degrades, the U.S. and others are likely to attempt to control the direction/pace/nature of developing nations’ industrialization. Another is that a serious arms-race in space could turn equatorial territory into premium real-estate (because it’s cheaper to launch hardware from the low latitudes). Put those two potential trends together, and you’ve got some real problems for Third World nations trying to keep the superpowers out of their backyard.
Craig Gidney – The style of the book is very immediate and filled with blackly humorous asides. How long did it take you to find the right voice? What is your writing process like?
David J. Williams – I can tell you exactly how long it took. I started writing in September of 2000, and finally managed to get something going in September of 2004. Some of that was learning how to write and some of it was figuring out the plot so that I had something TO write. But the voice I was searching for was elusive, and remained so for a long time.
As to my writing process: it’s very un-spontaneous. I place a great deal of emphasis on brainstorming, and have two different levels of that I go through: “clean-sheet” what-the-hell’s-going-on-here-big-picture brainstorming, and then a more precise kind where I’m mapping out the scenes. I can’t just plunge in. For me this is like shooting a movie: if I don’t have the whole thing storyboarded, I’m wasting my time.
Craig Gidney – You’d sold your trilogy before your time at Clarion West. How did the experience help or hinder your process?
David J. Williams – Yeah, the timing of that was pretty surreal. I applied to Clarion about six weeks after I landed an agent—and then about three weeks before I took off for Clarion, she had Bantam Spectra ready to sign on the dotted line. But (to answer your question) Clarion was awesome. I’d never experienced anything like that: I’d been pretty much living under a rock in D.C. (or rather, living in airports) and avoiding critique groups, partially because I was insecure, and partially because my full-time-plus workaholic day job gave me no time to meet the obligations that such groups incur (like reading everybody else’s stuff). I miss everybody I met in Seattle more than I can say—I wish I could do it again this summer.
Craig Gidney – Thanks for allowing me to interrupt your schedule, given that you’re knee-deep in writing the second book of the trilogy. One last question: who are you reading in the field?
David J. Williams – Right now I’m re-reading Herbert’s DUNE MESSIAH. Which I put right up there with DUNE, and I don’t care what anybody says.