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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Interview with David Weber (Interviewed by Liviu Suciu)

David Weber at Wikipedia
Official David Weber Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic review of "By Schism Rent Asunder"
Read Fantasy Book Critic review of "By Heresies Distressed"

Liviu's Note: This interview has been a huge honor for me and I wish to extend my special thanks to Tor representative Kyle Avery who approached me for it and then helped me set it up, as well as contributing several questions which were originally planned as an author blog post, so for example you may see Mr. Weber's answer to question 5 in other places too. The questions that had some input from Ms. Avery are marked as such, though all questions reflect my understanding of Mr. Weber's work that I have been following now for more than 15 years.

I was impressed by David Weber's comprehensive answers and I hope you will enjoy them too, while I wish to extend my deep thanks to him for participating as well as for writing these wonderful books. Enjoy!!

1. On your official website there is the quote below which from my experience of reading (multiple times) pretty much all your sff work I find very accurate. However for the benefit of Fantasy Book Critic's audience who may be less familiar with your work, could you expound a little bit on it?

“I think of myself as a writer only secondarily, because I think of myself primarily as a storyteller. I'm a writer, not an "author," and the fact that I write is simply a reflection of the medium through which I communicate the stories I tell to my audience.”

David: I think the sentence you quoted applies to my attitude towards writing in more than one way.

First, it's my way of saying that I think of myself as a craftsman practicing his craft rather than an "artist" creating art. In that respect, the attitude sort of runs in the family. My sister Kathy is a hand-weaver, up in North Carolina, and my younger brother Jim and his wife Sally are both potters down in Georgia, while I sit in the middle, in South Carolina, and write. None of the three of us have any objection to producing art, and I'd like to think that upon occasion we approach what could be considered to fall into that category. But all three of us are more concerned with producing something more than art. With producing something that's "every day" that doesn't require special training or education to appreciate, that communicates to just about anybody who comes into contact with it, and, hopefully, touches our audiences. None of us are interested in producing something which only the "initiated" are going to appreciate or enjoy.

The second aspect of the sentence describes what it is I try to do. That is, I try to tell stories, and the content of the stories -- the characters, the problems they face, the consequences of the decisions they make -- is what's truly important to me. The quality of the writing is important to me, but the bottom line is that the writing itself is simply the means by which I transmit the story and the elements which hopefully make that story come alive for the reader to the reader. In that respect, the writing itself is secondary, and I think it's a mistake for a writer to become too heavily focused on issues of style or "artistic content" and begin losing track of the actual story he's telling and the way that story's readers are going to respond to it.

I don't know if I'm expressing this as clearly as I want to, but I've encountered more than one writer (and in more than one genre) whose attitude seems to be that fans are the worst thing that can happen to an author. The unstated (and, frankly, sometimes explicitly stated) reasoning runs something like this. Readers are not authors. If they could be authors, that's what they'd do, instead of "just" reading. Therefore, the author should not allow himself to be influenced by reader feedback, since it comes from people who can't truly understand what it is he does. If he does let that feedback influence him, then the "work" (read "art") will begin to suffer.

Now, I have to admit that I think there's at least a modicum of reason in that attitude. Mind you, you have to look pretty hard to find it, but it's there. No writer -- or storyteller -- worth his salt is going to allow anyone else to dictate to him where his story is going. That doesn't mean (in my opinion), however, that he refuses to listen to comments from people who read his stuff lest their views of his characters and his storyline contaminate the purity of his own vision. It means that he has to be sufficiently confident in what he's producing that he can listen without allowing his own storytelling sense to be overwhelmed. In the end, he has to remember that the people who are talking to him about his work (assuming they're talking to him about it because they enjoyed it) have gotten their enjoyment out of where he's already taken them.

That means both that he's already done a passably good job and that he has to control where the story is going if he intends to go on doing a good job. So, no, you don't want to listen to fans in the sense of allowing them to become backseat drivers. At the very least, trying to write a story to please someone else instead of writing it the way you think it ought to be written is going to prevent you from telling the strongest story that you can.

At the same time, I've discovered that fans frequently have perspectives on my work that hadn't occurred to me when I produced it. I've often told people at conventions that no one in the entire world has ever read a single book I've written. What they've done is to read the books I've written from the perspective of their own life experiences and interpretations. Storytelling is always an interactive, collaborative art (or craft). The storyteller creates the framework, builds the characters, shapes the action, but the reader then has to interpret all of that work on the writer's part. The Honor Harrington in the stories you read is Honor Harrington as you understand and visualize her on the basis of what I've written. Any storyteller, any writer, has to bear that in mind at all times.

An oral storyteller is in a position to watch his audience, to gauge its reaction to the tale he's weaving. A writer isn't. We don't get to watch our audiences respond to our stories as they encounter them for the first time. In that respect, we're actually much more dependent on our readers' imaginations than the oral storyteller is, because we can't recognize the moment in which someone doesn't pick up on something, or misses some story element, and repair the omission on the fly. We have to rely on our audience to stay with us, and I think it's always a good thing for a writer to talk with people who read his work and see whether or not he's losing them.

And in the process, I've frequently discovered that a reader has recognized something I was doing with an aspect of character development, or the relationship between a pair of characters, that I hadn't consciously recognized at the time I was doing. In other words, in discussing the stories with people who read them, I get a deeper, better insight into my own work. And, sometimes, when it turns out that I didn't get a point or a nuance across the first time around, it helps me to recognize that I need to work harder on whatever it is I was trying to accomplish. As a result, I see talking to fans as a way to improve my grasp of my own craft.

From another perspective, I try to think of myself as a craftsman rather than an artist because I think people who consider themselves "artists" are sometimes prone to take themselves too seriously. That certainly should not be construed as any sort of across-the-board criticism or all-encompassing generalization. There are a handful of my own favorite writers whose work, in my opinion, clearly constitutes "art" as well as strong, well-crafted story telling. Patricia McKillip definitely falls into that category, as does Emma Bull. So did Roger Zelazny, Theodore Sturgeon, and Poul Anderson, and there are others. There are enormous dissimilarities between the writers I've just listed above, but what they have in common is the capability as stylists and crafters of words to produce beautifully crafted, deeply evocative prose that helps drive the strength of their stories without becoming a distraction from the story for their readers. There are other writers who produce the opposite reaction in me. Their style may be gorgeous, but it becomes a distraction from the story. They're too concerned with creating "art" to let the story itself take center stage.

Any story is a very personal thing for the person who tells. Whether he's consciously attempting to or not, he ends up baring at least some of his own soul in the process, if he really commits himself to the task of telling the strongest story he can. He has to. In that respect, the story is an extension of himself, an attempt to share with his readers something that he hopes will entertain them, move them, and take them at least temporarily into a fictitious world they'll enjoy having visited. He can't do that -- or, at least, I don't think he can do it consistently and well -- if he isn't going places that would entertain and move him, if he were the reader. He's inviting the reader to share, in a very intimate fashion, his world, his concept of the heights humanity can attain and the depths to which it can descend.

So I've never met a writer who isn't deeply invested in his own work. Who doesn't have at least a little bit of that "reject my work, and you're rejecting me" built into him. But we have to guard against that. We have to maintain our realization that people who don't like our stories, don't like our writing styles, don't like our writing voices, are not necessarily attacking us, as people. For me, thinking of myself as a craftsman rather than an artist helps me to maintain that degree of separation. That sense that storytelling is what I do, not necessarily who I am. Obviously, it's a part of who I am, but it's also my job. My profession. My craft. As such, I feel I'm entitled to regard myself with the confidence and approval of a skilled craftsman, reasonably satisfied with his work, and always looking for ways to improve it, but I don't and never have regarded myself as an artist whose work will be appreciated by the true cognoscenti, even if the general readership of my genre fails to appreciate them.

I work for a living, and I enjoy telling stories, and I regard myself as an entertainer. If I occasionally ascend to a "higher level" in the process, so much the better, but that's not how I define who I am and what I do.

2. Following your very informative posts on Baen's Bar (free registration required) as well as the posts made by people who had the chance of meeting you at conventions or book signings for 15 years now, I have a fairly good idea of how the Safehold series came to be, or at least what you let "us the fans" know about the process. Could you tell our audience also a bit about that? How and why did you imagine this world where "everyone knows God created humanity 900 years" since there is seemingly unimpeachable "proof"?

David: The Safehold series has been kicking around in my head, in one variant or another, for a long time. Way back in 1991, or maybe it was 1992, Jim Baen at Baen Books observed that I had this tendency to turn even stand-alone novels into series by writing sequels. And, he told me, he thought that writing extended series would probably be something I'd be good at. So he asked me to pitch nine or ten series concepts to him.

One of them was what became the Honor Harrington stories. (I didn't know at the time that I proposed Honor to him that he'd been looking for someone to write what he called "Horatio Hornblower in space" for twenty years or so. I don't really know if he ever actually read the other story proposals at all! [G])

There were, however, other concepts, one of which was to write the story of the creation of the Terran Empire from my Path of the Fury novel. Another was for a fantasy series, and Oath of Swords and its sequels are set in the fantasy universe from that proposal. And another of them was what became the Safehold books.

To be completely honest, I'm not sure what first got me started thinking in terms of the Safehold literary universe. Or, at least, if I did know when I first came up with the concept, I'm afraid I no longer remember what sent me in that direction. I would strongly suspect, however, that it was a question having to do with freedom of conscience and the nature of God. Boy, that sounds intellectually hefty, doesn't it? I didn't mean it to, but the truth is that a lot of the stories I tell are kicked off by a question that I start playing around with.

For example, in the case of Mutineers Moon, what really started the whole thing was a thought which came to me, I know not whence -- to wit, "What if we didn't really have a moon at all? What if what we really had was a gigantic, camouflaged, alien starship? Ooooh, shiny!"

Once I start asking myself something like that, I can't stop till I've nailed down an answer I like. Which, obviously, usually involves bringing up -- and answering -- a whole host of other questions. I would imagine that my initial thought in the case of Safehold was something like:

"What if someone had the opportunity to program an entire civilization to absolutely believe that he was God -- or at least God's personal representative? What would happen to freedom of conscience? To individual liberty? To the nature of that civilization's actual relationship with God?"

The Safehold books represent my effort to answer those questions. And, in the twenty years or so since I pitched the original concept, I think those questions have taken on a greater relevance for most of us. The truth is that attempts to control what people think and believe -- and to define what it is allowable for them to think and believe -- are always with us, but that there are moments when those attempts become both more apparent and more obviously dangerous.

At this particular moment, one of the things we're seeing is a conflict between opposing religious viewpoints, and between an authoritarian view and an individual view of not simply what religion is, but of how it ought to be practiced . . . and of how much freedom of conscience "God" (and the people who are absolutely certain that they're following His desires and intentions) will allow.

When I first pitched this concept to Jim Baen, I didn't have a clue that ten years later we'd see 9/11. I was already concerned about what I saw as a growing threat of terrorism by extremists -- I think if you read Mutineers Moon, for example, you'll find evidence of that. But I'll have to admit that I never expected the battle lines to be drawn the way they've been drawn, or that the stakes might become what they've become. In that respect, I'd have to say that events since 9/11 have certainly shaped where I've gone with the original concept.

It isn't what gave me the idea for the stories in the first place, and my own views on God, religion, individual freedom, the use of reason, and humanity's relationship with God were already largely formed when Safehold first became a blip on my writer's radar. Despite that, though, like everyone else, I'm a product of the world about me, and I'm sure that events since that cataclysmic day in New York City have directly impacted upon and shaped the story I'm actually telling.

3. In the Safehold series, you have created the incredible character of a warrior-monk avatar known as Merlin who actually carries the memories of a young woman, Nimue Alban, who died almost a thousand years ago. Do you believe that a being that is just memories can have a soul as one of my favorite characters from the series Archbishop Maikel tells Nimue/Merlin? What constitutes a soul? (question partly from Kyle, partly from Liviu)

David: I don’t think that a being which is just memories can have true sentience, far less a soul. Of course, Nimue/Merlin isn’t just Nimue Alban’s memories. Merlin actually has Nimue’s downloaded personality, attitudes, and belief structure. He isn’t just a recording, he’s a functional individual. That being said, Merlin himself isn’t at all certain whether or not he has Nimue Alban’s soul, as well as her memories and personality. In fact, it’s something he thinks about a good bit, as becomes evident in at least one place in By Heresies Distressed.

I happen to be a Methodist lay speaker, although I was raised Episcopalian. I mention this only so that people reading this will have a better feel for my starting point when I address your second question about what constitutes a soul. I do believe that something called a “soul” exists in all of us. I think that in a physical sense, it resides at the point at which an individual’s sense of himself or herself as an individual emerges in the confluence of the biochemical processes we call thought. It is that point at which our awareness of our individuality, our uniqueness, and of our ability (and responsibility) to interact with our environment and our fellows gives us the ability to make decisions. To make choices. To assume what I think of as the responsibilities of adulthood in selecting what we do and how we do it as a net contributor to or diminisher of the other individuals and the society around us.

If you’ll notice, virtually all of my heroes and heroines – not just in the Safehold books, but in almost everything I write – are decision makers, on whatever level they operate. They make decisions, and they accept responsibility for the consequences of those decisions, rather than saying “Hey! It’s not my job!”

Now, it happens that I also think a soul is more than that. Obviously, I’m coming from a Judeo-Christian background and viewpoint, and to me, the soul in the spiritual sense is that spark of the divine which was planted in all of us and which, I believe, yearns for something greater. It is, if you will, a gift of God’s own Self, freely gifted to human beings. That’s what I believe, at any rate, although, as they say, your mileage may vary.

I believe that it’s entirely possible for an artificial intelligence to have a “soul” in the first sense in which I’ve defined the term. That is, to attain genuine self-awareness, to recognize itself as an individual, and to assume responsibility for its own decisions and actions. Whether or not it could also possess a soul in the second sense in which I’ve used that term is a question which doesn’t admit of quite so cut-and-dried an answer. I think, though, that it is possible. For one thing, if God chose to give living biological creatures souls, then I fail to see any reason that He could not also choose to give non-biological living creatures (AIs) souls. And assuming (as I do) that He exists, and that He chose to do any such thing, He could use whatever avenue He chose to accomplish the feat . . . including a really good software engineer.

As it happens, I sort of cheated in Nimue’s case. She’s an “AI” only in the sense that she’s living in a nonbiological body. Her personality, her thought processes, her value systems all grew and evolved inside a human being named Nimue Alban. They happen to have been electronically transmitted to a cybernetic matrix, but that wasn’t where and how they originated, so there is nothing artificial about her intelligence. So, in my first sense of the definition of “soul” she very clearly does have one.

As far as my second sense of the definition of “soul” is concerned, I’ll only say that Archbishop Maikel gives my view of whether or not Merlin has Nimue Alban’s soul in By Heresies Distressed.

4. In a follow up to the previous question, I read somewhere that Japan recently unveiled the HRP-4C, a life-like female robot that can walk, talk, and smile. Do you foresee a time when robots will be so lifelike that we will have difficulty determining whether or not robotic beings have “souls?”
(question partly from Kyle, partly from Liviu)

David: I don't think it's a question of how lifelike a robot is -- that is, whether or not it's a humanoid shape that walks, talks, and smiles. To me, as I think I indicated above, the thing that we call a "soul" really has nothing at all to do with appearances or anthropomorphic physical attributes. It has to do with recognition and the internalization of the concept of self and with that self's recognition of responsibilities. Of its willingness -- and ability -- to make decisions for itself. To choose between alternatives on a basis other than an automated, pre-programmed decision tree.

In that respect, I think it's entirely possible that we'll ultimately see a time in which artificial intelligences, whether they happen to reside inside a "robot" or not, demonstrate what I would think of as a soul. At the same time, I strongly suspect that we're going to find it's more difficult to create that concept of self in a human-designed machine (whether it's electronic or biological) than a lot of people have assumed over the years.

As far as machines with souls are concerned, I think one of the things that always drew me to Keith Laumer's Bolos was that despite the fact that they'd been programmed and designed towards a specific end, as machines of war, they made choices. There can be no heroism, unless the possibility of cowardice exists. There can be no true virtue, unless the door is also open to self-centered egoism and corruption. There can be no true growth, unless we make decisions, abide by the consequences, and learn from experience.

I remember a conversation I had once with a man who had won the Navy Cross as a fighter pilot during World War II. He told me that he'd never considered himself a hero. Despite the fact that he was a multiple ace, he said, he really hadn't understood the concept of heroism until he watched a 19-year-old seaman on his aircraft carrier charge into a roaring gasoline fire in dungarees and a T-shirt to pull a pilot and a rear gunner out of a blazing dive bomber with a full load of machine gun ammunition and a 2,000 pound bomb still strapped to its belly. That kid got the pilot out, at the expense of horrendous burns over half his own body, and he chose to do it. It wasn't his job -- he wasn't even assigned to the flight deck division -- but he decided that it was his responsibility.

I think the day will come when a machine intelligence -- a genuine machine intelligence -- will be capable of making that same sort of decision. And when that day comes, if it makes the equivalent of the decision that 19-year-old made, I think we'll have no choice but to admit that that machine has a soul.

5. You write a lot about the excesses of the Church of God Awaiting: sumptuous meals while people are starving, warm quarters while the world outside freezes, even entertaining mistresses within the Temple’s sacred precincts when rules dictate otherwise. Are you trying to make a statement about religion in your novels? Are you criticizing the opulence and the pomp and circumstance that goes into some types of organized religions? Or are you criticizing manipulative megalithic institutions as a whole?
(question partly from Kyle, partly from Liviu)

David: I’m definitely trying to make a statement about religion in my novels, at least in the case of the Safehold novels, although people who have read my other books will be aware that I’ve used religion in virtually all of them, one way or another. Religion, and the way human beings relate to it, is far too complex for quick and easy generalizations. Academically, I'm a historian by training, with emphasis in military and diplomatic history, but I’ve also spent quite a bit of time with religious history, and no one can study history without becoming aware of the incredible impact religion has had on history. Nor can any fair-minded student of history spend much time with his subject without becoming aware of the fact that the full power of religion can be used constructively or destructively.

I believe that the majority of the great Western “ideologies,” prior at least to the Reformation, were religious in nature. In some cases, they may have been reactions against the established religion of the time, but the great ideological motivators weren’t nationalism, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, or any of the other isms. I’m not necessarily speaking here of personal motivations – the ambition of a Julius Caesar, for example. Nor am I necessarily speaking here of philosophy, since philosophy per se seldom motivated someone in an ideological sense. For that matter, philosophy was seldom separated from religion until well into the Enlightenment. And one could certainly make a case today for the argument that religion remains the great ideological motivator of radical Islam in its conflict with the Western philosophy of individualism, self choice, representative secular government, etc..

I also think that that Western philosophy of individualism and self choice is a natural outgrowth of the Judeo-Christian tradition of an individual relationship with God. Of the notion that God Himself thinks that individuals are important and that the decisions and the choices they make matter. The most secularly-minded agnostic or even atheist stems from a social and philosophical matrix which is the direct inheritor of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the important values within the matrix are derived in no small part (indeed, in my opinion, overwhelmingly) from millennia of grappling with how a just society deals with God’s apparent belief in the value of the individual.

None of the above means that religious institutions are somehow immunized against the frailties of the human beings who constitute the muscles and sinews of the institutions in question. Humans are fallible. Even when we are doing our dead level best to faithfully and conscientiously meet our responsibilities, we manage to screw up. Worse, some of us would far rather “game the system” than put ourselves to the effort of meeting those responsibilities.

That’s where you find televangelist scam artists, for example, just as you find unscrupulous politicians manipulating and gaming the sincerity of people who believe in the importance of political reform. There is no human system which cannot be corrupted and perverted for personal gain, and the weaker the controls on the humans involved in the system, the more readily that perversion and corruption are achieved. In addition, monopolization of authority, especially when that authority extends not simply to decisions of policy but also to what is or is not an acceptable belief, is a recipe for authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

Now, I happen to think corruption is wrong, and that authoritarianism and totalitarianism are also wrong. I believe corruption can be an individual or a systemic thing – that is, that a single given individual can be corrupt, for whatever personal motivations, or that an entire system of authority can be so corrupted that it becomes difficult or even impossible for any individual within that system to avoid being personally corrupted.

That is precisely what has happened in the case of the Church of God Awaiting in the Safehold books. For whatever reason (and, by the way, as much as I personally despise Langhorne and Bédard, I think it’s entirely possible to make an argument in favor of much of what they decided to do), the Church was deliberately created to be a totalitarian institution. Without some internal mechanism to prevent corruption, corruption was inevitable, and I don’t believe you can create such a powerful, totalitarian institution with an internal anti-corruption mechanism that is going to survive for centuries. For a time, perhaps, yes; indefinitely, no. Not, at least, without direct divine intervention, which obviously was not the case where the Church of God Awaiting is concerned.

The Safehold Church doesn’t really have an analogue in our own history. Some people have suggested to me that it’s really the Roman Catholic Church, but that’s not how I view it. The way I see it, Langhorne and Bédard borrowed heavily from the Roman Catholic Church when they structured the institution because of the Catholic Church’s track record for longevity. The fact that they borrowed from Catholicism (or, at least, their understanding of Catholicism, which isn’t necessarily the same thing) doesn’t make the Church of God Awaiting the Roman Catholic Church any more than Heinrich Himmler’s borrowing from the organization of the Jesuits made the SS the Roman Catholic Church.

On the other hand, if someone thinks he sees an analogue with the Reformation, they have a point. And, I suppose, my own Protestantism probably comes through as part of that. Again, though, I am more after borrowing the historical precedents and processes than I am with identifying the Church of God Awaiting with the Roman Catholic Church of the time of men like Huss and Luther. I do see my Charisians as having some of the same fire as those Protestant reformers, although as will become evident in By Heresies Distressed, at least some of the Charisians in question have more than simple “reform” in mind.

The corruption, opulence, and decadence of the Church of God Awaiting are the consequences of a closed authoritarian system which has had centuries to embrace a life of excesses. The fact that the entire edifice stands on the back of a monstrous lie which was deliberately formed and foisted upon the surviving human race expressly as a means of “mind control” only made it easier for those consequences to emerge.

And yet, in fairness to the Church of God Awaiting, it should also be observed that just as reformers like Huss and Luther (or, for that matter, Counter Reformation thinkers) emerged from within the Catholic Church and its doctrine and traditions, so do many of the Safeholdian opponents of the Church emerge from within the doctrines, traditions, and teachings of the Church of God Awaiting. The true fuel for their zeal, their energy, and the burning power of their beliefs (and outrage with the Council of Vicars’ corruption) is their perception that the Church is not living up to its own doctrines, its own belief structures, its own responsibilities.

I'd just like to add that another reason religion has turned up in so many of my stories is that questions of religious belief are so endemic to the human condition. Whether a society possesses a firmly established, universally accepted religious consensus, or is religiously pluralistic, or has become aggressively atheistic, it's still going to have religious (or anti-religious) components. So when I construct a fictitious, literary culture or society, I think about its religious aspects the same way I think about its sociological and technological aspects.

6. In a follow up to the previous question, your main characters talk about God always finding a way to make His presence known even in the direst of circumstances. Does this reflect your beliefs?

David: Yes.
Didn't know I could answer a question in just one word, did you?

I think, though, that the real question isn't whether or not God can make His presence known, but whether or not we're willing to recognize Him when He does. I don't want to sound like I'm proselytizing here, but my personal belief is that God recognizes that we grow through making decisions, not through simply accepting dogma someone else has dictated to us. I'm not saying all dogma is automatically false. I'm saying that uncritical acceptance of dogma is always wrong.

That that which we accept uncritically has no true meaning for us, because we haven't truly examined what it is we say we believe. And because of that, while I believe God can and does always find a way to "make His presence known," I also believe that He always leaves us the option of rejecting Him. We cannot truly make the decision to accept Him unless there is an alternative, and that alternative is one of the things the Church of God Awaiting has systematically taken away from the citizens of Safehold.

7.Merlin introduces detailed and comprehensive information about advances in nautical technology and arms manufacture to his trusted allies—while The Church of God Awaiting withholds technology from the Safehold people.Today, groups as diverse as the Amish and the Taliban choose not to use technology in their daily lives. Do you believe that certain technologies should ever be withheld from people?
(question partly from Kyle, partly from Liviu)

David: First, one tiny quibble. While it’s true that Merlin is definitely contributing to advances in nautical technology (among other technologies), he’s being very careful to do as much as possible of that by pushing Safeholdians into developing the technologies as practical propositions with hints from him. That’s not to say he isn’t directly handing over some aspects of that technology – the abacus, for one example, and grained gunpowder, for another. It’s simply that what he’s after is the creation of an innovating mindset -- a social, religious, and philosophical matrix which embraces the notion of change and advances in knowledge and capability as good things, not the “work of the devil.”

I personally believe that anyone who chooses to renounce technology has the right to do so, but there are going to be trade-offs in making that decision, potentials which are renounced along with the technology. I believe it’s entirely possible to make the decision that the consequences of avoiding or renouncing technology are outweighed by the perceived advantages, yet as someone who would have died of peritonitis in his late 20s without advanced technology, I’m afraid I don’t share that view. Still, I can appreciate the underlying logic and philosophical and religious beliefs which might impel someone else to feel that way, even though I don't share that logic of those beliefs.

I also believe that as technologies become more powerful they become vastly more dangerous. Virtually every tool ever invented by man, from the first stone hand ax to the power of controlled nuclear fission, can be used constructively or destructively. As the tools become more powerful, the amount of good they can do – or the amount of harm they can inflict – increases in step with each increment of power or effectiveness. A slip or a miscalculation in the design of a genetically engineered virus designed, for example, to go after cancerous cells, has enormously greater implications than a misplaced belief in the efficacy of bleeding a patient.

Our ability to change our environment – including the environment of our own bodies – is greater than it has ever been before, and it's continuing to grow and accelerate. By definition, the threat of that technology grows in direct proportion. What Isaac Asimov described as the “Frankenstein complex” is very much with us in the view that our technology poses a greater danger to our continued survival than anything else in the universe. And, to be honest, I think there’s a great deal of validity to that view.

The problem is that you can’t put the genie back into the bottle. Pandora couldn’t stuff everything back into the box after she opened it, but the last thing that came out of it was Hope, and that, I think, is what we need to bear in mind where technology is concerned. We cannot renounce the threats of technology without renouncing its benefits, and the solution to the problems technology has created is not simply to reject technology out of hand. Throughout its history, humanity has consistently improved its tools, if never before at such a breakneck pace.

What we're faced with is the necessity of improving our current set of tools – or even replacing them with an even better set – in order to solve problems. That’s what you do with tools. And when you discover an unintended and undesirable consequence from a given technology, you find a way to fix it. In some cases that’s by simply replacing that technology with something newer and better – something that gives you all or most of the benefits without the negative consequences. In some cases, that’s by repairing the technology, or recognizing when a given technology is the appropriate tool . . . and when it isn’t.

I think there has to be a consensus on what constitutes the appropriate use of technology, and I think we’re seeing a major debate over that right this minute. Actually, “consensus” may imply a bit more order than the universe is likely to permit us to enjoy. What looks like a consensus, a general agreement, is more often a dynamic tension, a compromise between competing opinions and values. Where exactly that compromise falls shifts over time, but the best we can really hope for is that those who may be too eager to race ahead with flawed or not yet perfected or potentially dangerous applications of technology will be restrained by those less eager, and that those who consider any new application of technology to be inherently dangerous and to be avoided will be dragged forward by those more eager.

I do think, as I’ve actually had at least one character say in one of my novels, that the amount of damage a dark ages mentality can do with modern technology is enormous. Just as I don’t think you should give a 10-year-old a loaded handgun for a birthday present (and, by the way, I’m a life NRA member), I don’t think we need to be giving nuclear weapons to unstable strongman regimes, or nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons to totalitarian revolutionary regimes. I don’t care what their ideologies are, I don’t want them having the capability to resort to those sorts of destructive agencies in the furtherance of their objectives.

And I believe that we should add cybernetic weapons to that list of Really Bad Things for international bullies and lunatics to possess. As technology continues to expand its capabilities, any number of new devices and abilities will enter that same category.

Unfortunately, that genie is still out of the bottle. Limiting the proliferation of destructive technologies would be possible only by limiting the proliferation of constructive technologies, as well. So, I’d say that while there are certainly certain technologies which should be withheld from certain people, in the long run, it’s not really going to happen. Perhaps we can slow the spread of some of them, but we’re not going to stop them. The creation of a consensus on what constitutes the acceptable use of technologies may be possible, but it will have value only if there is also a mechanism – and the will – to enforce prohibitive penalties against those who violate the consensus.

8. The accelerated "rediscovery" of science and tech that is possible on Safehold if Merlin, Cayleb and their allies get their way against the Group of Four has some obvious drawbacks though it may be necessary to allow humanity to reclaim its place in the Universe that the GBABA so ruthlessly destroyed. How do you envision the impact of sudden knowledge - even if as a denied birthright for so long - will disrupt Safehold?

David: First, Merlin has no intention of cramming science and technology at the people of Safehold any more cataclysmically than he can avoid. He's fully aware that there are going to be disruptions, and he's also aware that there's going to be bitter religious, philosophical, and intellectual conflict over the "proper" place of science and technology and human societies. That's unavoidable.

However, one of the reasons he's working with native Safeholdians -- giving them hints and pushing them in certain directions, then standing back and letting them get on with developing the ideas -- is to create a situation in which innovation and critical thinking once more become natural and valued parts of the human condition. In many ways, that's what the Church of God Awaiting was designed to prevent, to stamp out forever, and Merlin recognizes that he can't simply substitute one set of authoritarian directives for another one. So you could say that one of the consequences of his getting Safeholdians involved in rediscovering the scientific method is going to be to engineer at least a bit of a "soft landing" for the reintroduction of technology.

The other side of the coin, from where Merlin is sitting right now, is that the mere fact of breaking the Church's stranglehold is inevitably going to disrupt Safehold and engender incredible amounts of conflict. In other words, the impact of the science and technology themselves is going to be far less disruptive, in a lot of ways, than the earth shattering change in Safehold's basic worldview and the false religion which has governed it for so many centuries. In that sense, the actual nuts and bolts of the knowledge and tech base he's working to restore are secondary, at best.

There's also the fact that, assuming he and the Charisians succeed in overthrowing the Church of God Awaiting, and succeed in demonstrating that everything Langhorne and Bédard programmed into the colonists was a lie, he has in Owl and the databases stored in Nimue's Cave pretty nearly a complete blueprint for all of that technology and science. Obviously, there are going to be holes, but remember that Nimue specifically reflected that she had the equivalent of the library of a major university system -- and that we're talking about a "major university system" from several centuries in our own future. In other words, the information available to her forms a huge platform of knowledge which can be dispensed in a more or less orderly fashion. And thanks to the history which is also stored in those databases the people of Safehold are going to have the huge advantage of seeing all the ways and all the times we screwed up the first time through, while we were developing technology as part of a trial and error process. Hopefully, they'll profit from our mistakes.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, yes, there's going to be enormous disruption, but it's going to be a different sort of disruption from our own experience. Exactly how it will all play out is something I've given quite a bit of thought to, but it's not something I'm really prepared to discuss right now. First, because a storyteller likes to reserve at least a few little surprises as he goes along. And, secondly, frankly, because for me, the story is always in a state of flux until I've actually written it. It's still growing and changing, and I'm sure that by the time I get around to writing the books in which the disruption occurs, my ideas about its impact -- and how the people of Safehold deal with it -- will have grown and changed, as well.

9. Did your background in wargame design—developing campaigns and strategic rules for battle—help provide you with the in-depth military information you write about in the Safehold novels?
(question partly from Kyle, partly from Liviu)

David: Actually, I’d say it’s more the reverse. My background in military history provided the in-depth military information I needed when I was doing wargame design. I think it’s possible that the wargame design I did helped develop an ability to look at the ramifications of changing a military equation. Or, to put it another way, to consider the logical implications of what a particular matchup of military technologies and techniques might produce. Weapons, strategic concepts, and tactical doctrines don’t evolve in a vacuum. They evolve through conflict, through the elimination of outmoded weapons or doctrines by ones which are better.

Sometimes, it happens quickly, like the enormous changes the introduction of tanks and other armored fighting vehicles imposed between 1916 and 1945. Sometimes, it takes centuries, like the dominance of heavily armored cavalry, which lasted in the West from at least the time of the Byzantine cataphract until the introduction of practical gunpowder weapons (or, in the case of the French, the lethality of the English longbow). As the pace of technological change increases, so does the pace at which weapons and doctrines evolve. And absolutely nothing pressurizes change the way that actual armed conflict does . . . just as nothing puts the brakes on change the way that victory does. The losers are a lot more likely to look for innovative ways to make sure that they’re the winners next time, while the winners are a lot more likely to figure they’ve already got the winning combination.

I think it’s possible that having done wargame design, with the wargame designer’s ability to juxtapose technologies – or, at least, specific weapons systems – that never actually confronted one another, may have helped to make me more aware of some of the alternate avenues which could have been pursued. Overall, though, I think it’s been much more a consequence of the fact that I’ve spent 40-odd years studying military history than of the time I spent actually working on wargames.

10. As I mentioned in my By Heresies Distressed review, I saw some very clear similarities in the novel with the battles in Heirs of Empire as well as with some happenings in the Empire capital there. Was that planned from the beginning or did it flow from the story evolution?

David: I think in large part it flowed from the story evolution. Having said that, I also have to admit that when I got around to writing Heirs of Empire, I'd already come up with the specific concept I pitched originally to Jim, and I decided to go ahead and incorporate at least part of it into the Dahak storyline, since at that point it didn't look like I'd be writing what has actually become the Safehold novels.

There are very distinct differences between what happens on the planet Pardal and what happens on Safehold, and I'm going different places with the stories, but there's definitely a confluence of story elements. That's probably inevitable, since the same guy wrote both of them, and I'm looking at a lot of the same questions, if from somewhat different perspectives.

To be honest, one of the biggest differences, in my own mind, is that in the case of events on Pardal, what Sean, Harriet, Sandy, and Tamman were doing was solving a problem so that they could get home to a thoroughly established, highly advanced civilization so they could help deal with a threat humanity as a whole recognized and was committed to defeating. In other words, everything that happened on Pardal, despite all of the implications for religious and philosophical freedom, was secondary, in many ways, to the overall focus of the story line.

In the Safehold books, on the other hand, the questions of religious and philosophical freedom are the focus and the advanced civilization dedicated to defeating a mortal threat doesn't yet exist. What the books are really about are the questions of what constitutes a just society and how that society approaches individual freedom of conscience and belief. In that sense, the threat of the Gbaba is really a dramatic device to drive the people grappling with those questions, whereas in the earlier book, the questions were secondary, in many ways, to simply getting the kids home.

The line I'm drawing here should not be considered absolute. At best, it's a permeable membrane, with both books shading over into the other's "territory." Having said that, though, their emphases are definitely different from one another.

Given the nature of the conflicts within Safeholdian and Pardalian society, and the similarity of the religious structures, there are going to be a lot of similarities between the two stories. I think there are a lot of differences, as well, but human nature being human nature, and the struggle being what it is, and bearing in mind that the same guy is writing both books, it think it's inevitable that there are going to be . . . strong resonances, shall we say, between them.

11. One thing that worked only mixed for me in the Safehold were the naming conventions. While the subtle language drift implied and the game of guess today's equivalent is fun, the names also have too many xyz's to roll comfortably off the tongue. Why did you choose to do it that way and what kind of response did you get from fans and casual readers of your work? Was it different - fans vs casual readers?

David: To be honest, there are times I wish I hadn't done it. And, to be even more brutally honest, Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, my editor at Tor, asked me if I really thought it was a good idea at the time. I told him I thought it was, and there's a part of me that still strongly feels that way. At the same time, though, another part wishes I'd gone a different route. (Moral: Listen to your editor. He may not always be right, but he certainly won't always be wrong, either, and he may well have a better feel for the work than you do because he can stand farther back from it.)

The problem was that I wanted something which would make it clear that "we weren't in Kansas, anymore." One of the logical implications of a pre-technic civilization is that it's not going to have audio recordings to help freeze the language. That means pronunciations are going to drift. That even if words are spelled exactly the same in, say, Charis and Harchong, they aren't necessarily going to be pronounced the same way. To me, that was an integral part of the "alienness" of Safehold. The question was how to incorporate it into the books.

I considered coming up with different dialects and then writing my characters speaking in the dialects appropriate to their own countries of origin. I've done that before, but a little bit of it goes a long way. Not only that, I'd have had to come up with a whole bunch of dialects to give that kind of feel on a planetary scale. And, frankly, I think most readers find dialect even more disconcerting than they find nonstandard spellings of names. So I ruled out taking the dialect approach.

That left a shift in naming conventions, which is one reason we have place names all over Safehold that are still spelled the way the reader expects to see them, juxtaposed with the "drifted" spelling of exactly the same names. I decided it was the least intrusive way to accomplish what I was after.

In all honesty, I'm not certain I succeeded, and several people have mentioned to me that the name spellings constitute their greatest problem with the series. At least one member of my own household, I blush to disclose, listens to the audio books instead of reading them herself because that way she doesn't have to figure out how to pronounce the names.

I have to say that overall, the reaction to that particular aspect of the books is mixed. Some people really, really like it; some people really, really hate it; and some people really, really don't care one way or the other. And while I might sometimes wish I hadn't done it that way, I'm now stuck with it. I don't think it's a make-or-break sticking point either way for the vast majority of readers, and I've never been totally satisfied with any of my books. Overall, I think it works, and at least no ones sent me any letter bombs over it.

12. As with most of your work, twists and turns are a great part of my enjoyment and knowing the "tu-te-tum" answer I want only to ask how do you manage them? Are they planned at the beginning or do they flow from the story? I was really floored - with Merlin too - by the monastery scene in By Schism Rent Asunder, never saw that and even today after 4-5 reads it still comes as a shock, so I am truly curious about how you manage that...

David: Most of the major plot turns are planned from the beginning, but they're seldom planned in terms of details and specifics. I know where I'm starting a story from, and I know where the story is going to end, and I chart out (at least roughly) in my own mind what the overall contours of the trip from beginning to end are going to be like. But one of the reasons I tell the stories in the first place is to find out for myself how those twists and turns are going to work.

You used the specific example of the scene at Saint Zherneau's. From the moment I began work on the first novel, I knew there was going to be a repository, somewhere in Charis, left by an Adam who knew the truth. And I knew there was going to be a group within Charis who knew about that repository and accepted the accuracy of the documents it contained. But until I was well into By Schism Rent Asunder, I hadn't determined exactly where the repository was going to be, how it had been left, how it had been preserved, why the people who discovered it believed it was accurate, or exactly how it was going to impact on Maikel Staynair and his belief in both God and in the enormous, overriding importance of freedom of conscience. I found out how all of that fitted together when I actually wrote that part of the story. In fact, in many ways, it's that experience of "finding out" as I go along that fuels and sustains my ability to tell the stories I tell.

13.Highly emotionally charged scenes are another great part of why you rate as my number one sff author of today. In the Safehold series, the ending of Off Armageddon Reef, in the Honorverse the ending of At All Costs are some of the most memorable, but the "public show" in Zion from By Schism Rent Asunder or Merlin's words in By Heresies Distressed rank there too. Do you plan these scenes as sort of a "climax" for a given thread, or do they flow from the characters evolution?

David: That's actually a tough question. I think the answer is that it's more a case of their flowing from the evolution of the characters than it is of having been preplanned. Note that I used the verb "think," however.

To me, there's a rhythm and a flow to telling the story. There are events, emotions, situations, which are natural . . . punctuation points. When I write a book, I'm conscious of that rhythm and flow. I wouldn't say I'm consciously looking for it, but I'm aware of it. I know it's out there, I know it's going to be worked in, but I haven't considered the specific nuts and bolts of the way I'm going to do it.

The evolution of the characters, and their relationships, and the changing and steadily developing background of their literary universe, provide those nuts and bolts when I need them. I knew King Haarahld was going to be killed in the first book. I knew he was going to be an iconic figure, and that the way he died was going to cost his people enormous grief and simultaneously provide an example and an inspiration for his Navy and for his entire kingdom.

That part of it was "preplanned." Exactly how it was going to happen, was not. About halfway through the book, I realized he was going to be killed in the final battle, and that in some ways, he was going to be killed because he made that "wrong decision for a king, right decision for a man." I still didn't know at that point how it was going to happen or that Hektor Aplyn was going to be so central to it. But as I watched the relationship between the king and this young kid of a midshipman growing and developing, the nature of the death Haarahld was going to die emerged out of that relationship.

I think that fact that it grew out of that relationship, that it was so fundamental to the human nature of the characters involved -- that Hektor would fling his own body between his king and the threat of death, and that Haarahld would refuse to let him do that -- is what gives the scene its emotional strength. You have two people, one a mature middle aged king, one a child-officer, both of whom choose to offer their lives for the other, and they do it without ever even considering not doing it because of who they are. And then, when Haarahld is dying -- and knows he is -- his reaction isn't to fear death, but to offer comfort to the boy holding him while he dies.
You don't plan that kind of scene. Or, at least, I don't. You may know it's coming, and you may trust that it's going to evolve, but you don't plan it. Instead, you build it out of the essence of the interacting characters involved in it.

14. Your typical novel is part of a relatively open-ended series that consists of "mini series" that build on each other, advance a "big picture" thread(s) but also offer enough resolution to keep the readers satisfied. The combo of By Schism Rent Asunder and By Heresies Distressed is a typical example having a clear beginning, a clear ending with promises of more to come and a clear theme. What are your plans for the Safehold series next?

David: As I've been known to say on Baen's Bar, tum-te-tum-te-tum.
Originally, I was going to do this series on a generational basis. Book one was going to be about King Haarahld. Book two was going to be about King Cayleb. Book three was going to be about King Cayleb's heir, etc.

The problem is that the difficulties and challenges which Cayleb and Sharleyan confront are too complex and too huge for simple resolution. I knew I was giving myself a big canvas when I started, but I hadn't really fully anticipated all the places all of the various conflicts and facets of the overall struggle were inevitably going to take me. If I'm going to deal with the struggle in a way which is emotionally satisfying for both me and the readers and which is simultaneously going to recognize the complexity of the characters' challenges, then I'm not going to be able to dispose of Cayleb and Sharleyan's reigns in a single book. Or in a simple pair of books.

I know what it is I need to accomplish within the lifetimes of this particular set of characters, and I know what it is I need to accomplish within the framework of the overall series. There's still a gray area where those two sets of events overlap. As I said above, I tend to plan the general contours of the trip in some detail, but I don't try to nail down exactly where we're going to camp out overnight along the way, or where we're going to stop to explore an intermediate destination, or where an evolving relationship between characters is going to lead to a dénouement I didn't anticipate at the beginning.

All I can tell you right this minute is that there are currently a total of something like six or seven more books in the series, and that I'll be surprised if I get to the end of my story arc in that few volumes.

15. This question is related to the previous but is directed toward all your work. I know you have been focusing strongly on the Honorverse with three novels coming out within a year (Storm from the Shadows, 3/09, Torch of Freedom 11/09, Mission of Honor 7/10) and of course Safehold with the 3 novels so far coming out at yearly intervals. What are your plans for the next several years as regarding all your work?

David: To survive?
Bottom line, I'm a production writer. I like to tell big stories, I turn out a novel in three to four months, and I have a lot of books under contract. I tell people -- and it's true -- that I'm going to run out of time before I run out of stories, and I think it's better to have more stories to tell than you have time to write than to have contractual obligations to fulfill and not have a clue what you're going to write about. The downside of having lots of stories to tell is that (a) you know you're not going to get them all told, and (b) sometimes you tend to bite off more than you can chew.

At the moment, primary emphasis is going to be on the Honorverse and on Safehold. That's going to be true for at least the next couple of years. However, I still need to get back to the Bahzell stories, I have a lot of people asking me where the next Hell's Gate novel is, there are people who want me to do a sequel to In Fury Born, other people want to know where Dahak is, and John Ringo and I both have people asking us when we're going to write the next Prince Roger novel. For that matter, I have an entire series of straight historical novels completely plotted out that I would love to write, if only -- wait for it, waaaaaait for it! -- I had the time.

In short, my biggest problem is that I've got too many irons in the fire to really do justice to all of my writing projects. I'm . . . overextended, in other words. I'm doing my best to balance things between what my readers want, the order in which my publishers want the books, and approaching the writing itself in a way which leaves me enthusiastic and with the energy to produce work of a quality with which I can feel satisfied.

16. I want to mention here how much of a honor this interview has been for me since I have been a big fan since the early 90's and your books have represented some firsts for me (first hardcover bought by me in this country in Honor Among Enemies, first e-arc bought in At All Costs, first-e-draft bought in the OOPSIE of Storm from the Shadows). Any closing words that you would have for our audience?

David: I'm flattered that you've enjoyed the books. I try to give my readers both value for their money and value for the time they invest in reading my stories. As I said earlier, it's really a collaborative effort between them and me, and I try never to lose sight of that. It's always immensely satisfying when total strangers -- people who aren't family, and don't have to worry about hurting your feelings -- actually go out and spend their hard earned currency on your work.

When a book succeeds, it validates the writer in so many ways, and it gives him the encouragement and the energy to go see if he can do it again. Obviously, I have been not simply fortunate but blessed, in the fullest sense of the word, to be allowed to earn my living and support my family doing something I love as much as I love telling stories. I can honestly say that I work hard at my job and my craft, but it's easier to do that when it's something you enjoy doing. I am more grateful than I could ever possibly say for the reception my work has received and for readers -- like you -- to whom it has given pleasure.

As I say, I'm an entertainer, a storyteller. I think of it as the world's second oldest profession, and I think the ability to tell stories -- and to receive stories from the teller -- is a huge part of what makes us human. I'm not interested in whether or not it's "literature," and I'm not really going to be brokenhearted if a hundred years from now people aren't still reading my stuff and saying "Gosh! This guy could write!" Mind you, I wouldn't have any objection to that being the case. But I'm not doing what I do in the expectation of its happening.

I'm telling stories because I need to. Because it's part of who I am. And the bottom line is that I want the people reading them right now to enjoy them. Certainly, to be entertained. Possibly to be touched. But above all, at the end of the day, to feel they were adequately repaid for the time they spent coming into my world and meeting my characters and watching them deal with their responsibilities and their challenges.
If I've succeeded in doing that, then all the effort I put into the story was absolutely worth it.


Angelo said...

Great and comprehensive interview!

Patrick said...

Wow, David really went to town on this one. It's a compliment to you that David was so interested in answering the questions.

Liviu said...

Everything went very fast - I had 2/3 days to prepare the questions since I was contacted last week about doing this and I did not want to tarry...

I forgot one more, about the truth wand of Father Paityr and the answers of Haarahld - in hindsight with BSRA and Saint Zherneau in mind, I went 3-4 times through them and it still amazes me how Mr. Weber does it, putting this innocuous stuff out there that comes and blows you away later when you realize what it meant; after all in that scene what catches the eye and gives the dramatic tension are Merlin's answers and you are immediately impressed how well they parse, but then comes BSRA and St. Zherneau and you realize that actually the King's answers are even more interesting...

"Very well, Your Majesty." Wylsynn cleared his throat. "Your Majesty, of your knowledge, do any of the new processes, devices, or concepts which have been or will be introduced here in Charis violate the Proscriptions of Jwo-jeng?"

"They do not," Haarahld said in formal, measured tones, and the verifier glowed steady blue.

"Do you know of any individual here in Charis who would oppose God's will for Safehold?" Wylsynn asked, and Merlin held his mental breath.

"I know of no one here in Charis who would act in opposition to the will of God," Haarahld said. "I don't doubt there are some, for there are always those who prefer evil to good, but if they exist, I do not know who they may be, or where."

Again, the verifier continued to glow.

"Do you, as an individual and a monarch, accept God's plan for Safehold's salvation?" Wylsynn asked, and this time Haarahld's face tightened, as if with a flicker of anger. But he replied in that same measured tone.

"I accept God's plan for this world, for my Kingdom, and for myself," he said, and the verifier burned clear blue.

"Do you intend ill to any who do not intend ill to you?" Wylsynn asked very quietly, and Haarahld cocked his head slightly.

"Forgive me, Father," he said across the blue glow of the verifier, "but that question would seem to me to go just a bit far afield."

Wylsynn began to open his mouth, but the king shook his head before he could.

"Nonetheless," Haarahld continued, "I'll answer it. You've extended your trust to me, and so I'll extend mine to you. In answer to your question, I intend ill to no man who does not intend ill to me or the subjects for whose lives and safety I am responsible.""

The questions went Friday afternoon and I had the answers yesterday morning and I was truly impressed by the comprehensive answers...

Cindy said...

Great interview. It seems like Weber was really into the interview which you don't see a lot in some interviews :)


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