Liz Williams is a British writer whose novels are published in the U.S. by Bantam Spectra. U.K. editions of her books are published by Macmillan's Tor imprint from 2003. Her first two novels, The Ghost Sister and Empire of Bones, were both nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. Liz lives in Brighton, and this interview took place in a pavement café close to the famous Brighton Pavilion. We did not attract much interest from passing tourists. However, we were constantly interrupted by hoots of derision from passing seagulls who clearly thought that we were quite mad. It was a pleasantly sunny day, which was a relief for Liz who had recently returned from somewhere much less warm.
Cheryl Morgan: So Liz, you have just come back from Siberia. Were you being arrested for political sedition, researching a book, or what?
Liz Williams: For a change I wasn't being arrested. I was partly on holiday, and partly researching a novel. Hopefully that will someday result in a sequel to my new novel, Nine Layers of Sky.
CM: I understand that you have spent a lot of time travelling in Central Asia.
LW: Yes, I have spent a lot of time living and working in Kazakhstan, and traveling around that area.
CM: And the new novel is set in Kazakhstan. What is it about?
LW: Well, around that particular area of the Altai mountains there is supposed to be an entrance to an alternate dimension. It is most often known as Shambhala, but the Russian name for it is Byelovodye, which means "The Land of White Waters." Rather than make this a mystical landscape, I chose to make it the embodiment of the Russian subconscious. So as well as containing some mythical elements from the region, it contains a modern technological society that is the kind of world that the Soviet Union wanted to create. The book is about someone who finds an entrance to that alternate world.
CM: The heroine is a former astrophysicist on the Russian space program, which is based at Baikonur in Kazakhstan. From what you write it sounds like things are in a pretty bad way there.
LW: Yes, things have been dire. I knew a lot of people who were working in academia and the space program, and who are now unemployed. Elena is an amalgam of people.
CM: You obviously have a great deal of sympathy for the Russian people, and for the various ethnic groups in Central Asia, such as the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, who now find themselves with their own countries.
LW: I think they've been through hell, and not just under the Soviet period. But there is an abiding myth in the 'strong man' system of leadership which has led to their downfall, and which will continue to do so as long as they hold onto it. There's not much to choose between Genghis and Stalin.
CM: Your second novel, Empire of Bones, is also set in Asia, but much further south in India. Have you traveled there as well?
LW: I have, yes, though unfortunately for a much shorter period of time. I spent a couple of weeks going round Mumbai and Varanasi, frantically doing as much research as possible, but it wasn't as much as I would have liked.
CM: And the book is about caste politics?
LW: Yes, caste politics and social systems.
CM: In the book it isn't only the Indians who have a caste system. Earth is contacted by an alien civilization that also has a caste system.
LW: I wanted to do a sort of microcosm/macrocosm take on the whole thing. The alien culture, being galaxy-wide, is much more developed and the caste system is much more entrenched. They literally cannot communicate very well between castes. And this is supposed to be a metaphor for how both India -- and the British Raj -- have failed to come to grips with the problems of caste.
CM: For the aliens caste is biological as well as social. They are genetically incapable of changing caste.
LW: Yes, that's critical to the story.
CM: And there is a colonization theme as well. The Earth is about to be colonized by the aliens in much the same way as India was colonized by the British.
LW: That is deliberate too, I wanted to draw a direct parallel. The people who went out to India from Britain were either criminals or bureaucrats, or both. It wasn't an organized colonization program; it was fairly haphazard, as these things tend to be.
CM: The alien hero, Sirrubennin EsMoyshekhal, is a bureaucrat.
LW: I wanted to call the book "The Alien Civil Servant" but my publishers wouldn't let me.
CM: It looks like there is a sequel due for that one too. We never did find out what happened to Sirru and his girlfriend.
LW: There were originally another 60 pages of story, but that got cut. Whether that will develop into another novel at some time in the future I don't know.
CM: The human heroine of the book, Jaya Nihalani, might easily be described as a terrorist. Did you have any trouble with this?
LW: We certainly did. The first version of the back cover actually said that she was a terrorist. That was sent out to me a few weeks after 9/11, and Bantam's management was unhappy with it. We ended up scrapping the back cover and doing a new one.
CM: And was there any negative reaction once the book was published?
LW: Not that I know of. I have had positive feedback from people in India, which I am very pleased about because I am a rank outsider. Obviously, I don't understand their society nearly as well as I would if I had been born into it. It could be argued that my writing a book like that was in itself a form of latent colonization, but so far the reaction has all been positive.
CM: Turning now to your first novel, The Ghost Sister, this one doesn't have terrorists but it has fundamentalists. Except that they are not Christians or Muslims, they are Gaians, followers of an environmentalist religion.
LW: I am a Pagan myself, and I have noticed there is always a fundamentalist tendency in any religious grouping, even one as amorphous and haphazard as Paganism. There will always be people within the group who believe that their way is the one true way and that everyone else is wrong.
CM: Your Gaians have a policy of terraforming every world that they come across into a luxury gated community where nothing unpleasant can ever happen.
LW: As an archaeologist friend of mine put it, they want to keep us away from sharp things. That sort of attitude is more and more prevalent in the West today and I find it very debilitating.
CM: The heroine of the book, Shu Gho, is a Japanese grandmother. That's not exactly a typical casting for a heroine.
LW: Well I wanted someone who wasn't a sprightly young blonde thing. And it is a Le Guin thing. As you may have noticed, much of the book is an homage to Le Guin. Of course it was the sprightly young blonde thing who ended up on the cover. It was right out of the filk song, "There's a Bimbo on the Cover of My Book."
CM: And did this crass marketing ploy work?
LW: With the men it did. Every man whom I have heard comment about the cover has said, mm, she's got a nice arse. Female readers, of course, had a very different reaction. There was a very clear gender divide.
CM: As part of that novel you invented the science of Quantum Anthropology. Would you like to explain what it is about?
LW: I think that might be the only original idea I have ever had. In quantum physics we have known for some time that the act of observation can affect the physical world, as in the example of Schrödinger's Cat: it is neither dead nor alive until we observe it. Back in the '50s and '60s a whole lot of anthropological work was done on the idea that the very act of observing a society will cause the people in that society to behave differently.
On Monde D'Isle, outsiders are treated as ghosts. The Mondhaith literally believe that Shu Gho and her colleagues are unreal and that they cannot see them. So the question is, will the act of observation still change that society, even if the people in it don't believe that they are being watched?
CM: And the people in that society are werewolves.
LW: Essentially yes. They don't change physically, but they do change psychologically.
CM: Even the kids.
LW: Well the kids are just wolves, they haven't matured yet.
CM: And their parents turn them out into the wild when they are one year old, expecting them to come back when they have grown up a bit and learned to be human at times.
LW: That's it.
CM: This is a fairly scary view of kids.
LW: Well I'm not a mother. This pretty much reflects my ideal view of children.
CM: That you should be able to get rid of them when they are one year old?
LW: And that they should come back when they are able to hold a civilized conversation. I'm afraid I am not the maternal type.
CM: Book number three, then, The Poison Master. This one is a little mystical.
LW: Elizabethans on drugs in space.
CM: So we've done Cyberpunk and Steampunk, so now it is time for--
CM: And John Dee somehow manages to get mankind into space through the practice of alchemy.
LW: Well we know that he spent a lot of time communing with angels in a strange language called Enochian.
CM: And that could have been an alien language?
LW: Precisely. Also if you look at the diagrams that he and his assistant, Edward Kelley, were drawing after these conversations, they look more like electronic circuit diagrams than anything else. Dee says that these are complex occult sigils, but that could just be how he understands them. I've had this idea in the back of my mind for some time that what if he was actually communicating with someone, and that the people he had contacted were aliens?
CM: And not only does alchemy work, but once we get into space we discover that the whole universe is based on the Cabala.
LW: Not the entire universe, but there is this region of space where the Cabala works, and this is where humans got the idea from in the first place. Alchemy doesn't work well on Earth, but once Dee and his pioneers get out to the planet of Latent Emanation, alchemy and the Cabala do work.
CM: And if I were to sit down with some Cabalistic text books and work through the names of the planets and so on would the plot all flow according to Cabalistic principles?
LW: Yes. There are also lots of Gothic anagrams in the book that no one seems to have hit upon yet. There will be a prize for the largest number spotted.
CM: There are religious fundamentalists in this one too.
LW: The Unchurch. They are sort of anti-fundamentalists, but they are very fundamentalist about being anti-fundamentalist.
CM: Fundamentalism is obviously something that you have a bit of a bee in your bonnet about.
LW: It is indeed. I don't like people who constantly tell other people what to think and do. I'm quite fundamentalist on that point actually.
CM: You have a very interesting background for a science fiction writer. I understand that your mother was a writer as well.
LW: She wrote about twelve gothic horror and romance novels in the late '70s and early '80s.
CM: Are the books still available? What name should we look for?
LW: Veronica Williams. The books all went out of print when the mid-list crisis hit, so they are quite difficult to get hold of.
CM: And your father was a stage magician?
LW: He worked in a bank for most of the time, in order to pay the bills and so on. But in his spare time he was a stage magician. So I grew up in a house that was full of magic wands and hats from which doves could be produced: stuff like that.
CM: That must have given you a rather cynical view of magic.
LW: Just a touch, yes. Although actually my father wasn't that cynical. He was quite idealistic in the sense that he would have loved it to have all been true. Of course he never found anything that really did work, but despite being a cynic I tend to believe that magic does work on some level. I have seen too much weird shit to be completely skeptical. I keep an open mind.
CM: Did this influence you in going on to study philosophy at university?
LW: Yes it did. I want to try to get to the bottom of things.
CM: And you have a doctorate in the philosophy of science?
LW: Yes, from Cambridge.
CM: What did you do for your thesis?
LW: My thesis was on the epistemology and sociology of science. It looked at knowledge systems and how you differentiate between actual knowledge and mere belief. How you determine whether scientific theories are accurate or not.
CM: That sounds like ideal training for a science fiction writer.
LW: Yes, it was, but it got extremely boring towards the end so I'm glad to be shot of it. Writing is much more fun.
CM: Your philosophical training obviously comes through in The Poison Master where you are presenting alchemy as a form of workable science, and it is in The Ghost Sister as well in the material about Quantum Anthropology. Is this something that you are trying to have permeate your work?
LW: I think it needs to be addressed, yes. We live in an increasingly technological world. On the one hand we are very cynical about science, in terms of what gets funded and why. Yet at the same time we can be very idealistic and think that science can solve all of our problems. I think it is important that we should all have an understanding of the basic methodology on which science is based and be able to distinguish a sound piece of work from bunkum.
CM: Science these days is getting so weird in many areas that people are starting to follow Arthur C. Clarke and treat it as if it were magic. How many people really understand quantum physics?
LW: Indeed, the days of the gifted amateur are long gone. You need a lot of formal training in order to operate on the frontiers of science these days.
CM: A lot of people are also electing not to believe in science. Or at least to choose what to believe. UFOs are real, but we never went to the moon. That sort of thing.
LW: People have an enormous capacity to believe in all sorts of odd things, some of which are utter crap.
CM: Do you think that science fiction can help improve this situation in any way?
LW: I think that things like The X-Files are interesting. There are occasionally conspiracies and there are emergent properties of systems, and it is good entertainment. But I don't like the more extreme interpretation of this. I don't think that everything is a conspiracy.
CM: You did follow in your father's footsteps in one respect in that you had a short career as a Tarot reader.
LW: Yes, on Brighton Pier. And I do still read the Tarot, for myself and for friends.
CM: Was it is a profitable business?
LW: It was fairly profitable, and a lot of fun.
CM: Did you ever have anyone come back and say, wow, that was really accurate?
LW: No, but most of my customers tended to be on holiday so I wouldn't expect them to.
CM: Have you ever been tempted to set up a Tarot reading booth at a science fiction convention?
LW: I was going to do it as Wiscon this year, as part of the craft fair event that they have introduced on the first day, but as it turned out I couldn't go. One day I will. And if anyone wants a reading done at a convention then I am usually available to do it for the price of a pint.
CM: You are also one of the principal organizers of Milford, the UK-based writers' workshop.
LW: I first attended Milford about six years ago. I was a bit wary about it because I don't normally do workshops and I didn't have any firm ideas of what it would involve. But I loved it, I ended up becoming Secretary and I keep going back. It isn't like Clarion. It is a week in a hotel in York. It is peer review, not tutorial, so you basically all sit round in a circle and do a group critique. You pay only for the hotel accommodation and a small administration charge.
CM: So it is not liable to suffer from financial problems the way that Clarion East has.
LW: No, it is not subsidized by anyone, it is not funded by anyone. The only financial limitation on attendance is whether you can afford to spend £200 or so on a week in a hotel.
CM: And are there many famous British SF writers who are Milford graduates?
LW: Yes, Rob Holdstock is, Chris Priest, Neil Gaiman, Anne McCaffrey came after she moved to Ireland. Most of them really.
CM: As well as the novels you have also written a lot of short fiction for various magazines.
LW: Thirty-two published stories to date. I like writing short fiction. It is a very different calling to novels, and I'm not really sure which I prefer. I think it probably depends on how I am feeling at the time. And some story ideas just have more legs than others, they just keep on going and turn into novels.
CM: Is there anywhere that people can find you online?
CM: Liz Williams, thank you for talking to Strange Horizons.
Copyright © 2003 Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan's native habitat is the U.K., but the species has also been found in Australia and California. Naturalists believe that the species is migratory and that it follows the publication patterns of science fiction novels. Ms. Morgan is also the editor of the Hugo-nominated online science fiction and fantasy book review magazine Emerald City and is an occasional reporter for Locus and reviewer for Foundation. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.