Robert Charles Wilson’s new novel, The Affinities, comes out today. As I mentioned in my review of The Affinities, I was hooked from start to finish. At the end, I had a few questions for Wilson which he was willing to answer. So here are five questions and five answers for one of the 21st century’s best science fiction writers.
Ryan Skardal: Many of your works focus on watershed moments. These moments are often caused by mysterious forces from the future or outer space, but InterAlia’s algorithm seems much more familiar given how much facebook apparently knows about us (or can predict). What inspired you to write about the social algorithms in The Affinities?
Robert Charles Wilson: I was inspired by a lot of things when I wrote The Affinities, including, yes, all the digital data that’s attached to each of us nowadays like an intricate shadow personality. But more specifically, I was thinking about cognitive science and wondering what kind of new technologies a deep understanding of human nature might allow. In a way, it’s the great unfinished work of the Enlightenment — a truly rational, scientific understanding of what it means to be human in a world of other humans. Only now is science beginning to wrestle that question away from philosophy and theology.
I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for sf writers. Exploring nascent, potentially world-changing technologies is what we do. We did space travel six ways from Sunday, long before the first manned vehicle entered orbit — so much so that it’s almost an exhausted subject. But cognitive science is opening big new doors for imaginative fiction to step through.
Your novels often explore the difference between a generation that lived before a watershed event and one born after. What watershed moments do you feel have mostly strongly distinguished your generation?
Actually, I’m a little skeptical of technology as a direct driver of generational change. In the early 1960s, there were people who thought the generation that grew up watching television would be transformed in some fundamental, essential way. Alas, neither Captain Kangaroo nor Sesame Street succeeded in delivering the New Humanity.
When I think about what’s happened in my lifetime, the most profound changes have been moral and cultural shifts. I was born at a time when segregation was still law in the United States, discrimination against women was considered routine and unremarkable, and same-sex marriage was a fantasy that could not be spoken of in polite company. In other words, I’ve seen at least as much moral progress in my lifetime as I have seen technological progress, and the moral progress has made at least as much difference in the lives of ordinary people as the inventory of tech toys to which they have access.
But do particular technologies work to modulate, advance, or impede moral progress? Ah, now there’s an interesting question for a science fiction writer!
In The Chronoliths, the technology that Sue Chopra studies leads to a new wave of innovation that reignites an otherwise stagnant economy and culture. Are there any technologies that you feel will help younger generations to cope with the challenges they will face?
Will younger generations find new technologies to address the challenges they face from the unintended consequences of the technologies that solved the problems of a previous generation? Yes, I think so; it’s happened before; and as I suggested above, we may on the threshold of discovering ways of making that process more deliberate and less ad-hoc.
Stephen Hawking has recently suggested that humanity will need to spread to space. In your SPIN trilogy, humanity is only able to achieve an ecological balance after it has spread across roughly half a dozen planets. Some academics now predict that our population will stabilize at 12 billion rather than 9 billion people, and, as you have pointed out elsewhere, people still drive SUVs. Are there any initiatives that you now believe will save us from ourselves?
I’m planning a novel that addresses that very question, and I’m reluctant to tip my hand by talking about it. But no — in terms of a practical solution to what might be our species’ most pressing problem, I don’t have any easy answers and I don’t see any on the horizon.
In other interviews, you often have an idea for your next project. Not to sound greedy, but do you have any ideas that you are willing to share with us?
I’m just finishing a novel called The Last Year. Not an apocalyptic story, despite the title. The premise involves a kind of time travel without all the complications of causal paradoxes — travel to “pasts” that are actually parallel universes, nearly infinite in number. Which makes it possible to treat historical periods as if they were third-world tourist destinations, to be exploited until the very act of interacting with them changes them so dramatically that they no longer track our own history. The story’s about the last year of a plush resort for wealthy twenty-first tourists in post-Civil-War America; the hero is a local drifter who’s working at the resort as a security guard during an attempted assassination of President Grant.
Currently in the planning stage is a novel I want to call The Cure. It’s about a cure for schizophrenia that turns out to be something far more fundamental than that. Like The Affinities, it draws on implications of current work in cognitive science. Can’t wait to get started on it, actually.
Thank you for answering my questions. I look forward to reading The Last Year and The Cure.
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Affinities. I hope you like it as much as I do!
At loose ends both professional and personal, young Adam Fisk takes the suite of tests to see if he qualifies for any of the Affinities, and finds that he’s a match for one of the largest, the one called Tau. It’s utopian — at first. Problems in all areas of his life begin to simply sort themselves out, as he becomes part of a global network of people dedicated to helping one another — to helping him.
But as the differing Affinities put their new powers to the test, they begin to rapidly chip away at the power of governments, of global corporations, of all the institutions of the old world. Then, with dreadful inevitability, the different Affinities begin to go to war — with one another.
What happens next will change Adam, and his world, forever.