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Liz Williams: The Magician’s Daughter May 2004

Liz Williams has degrees in philosophy, artificial intelligence, and epistemology. After university, she taught English as a foreign language, and worked for the government of Kazakhstan. Williams's work straddles science fiction and fantasy, often in Asian-reminiscent settings and cultures. Her first published story was "A Child of the Dead" (1997) in Interzone. She has continued to publish short fiction regularly in the UK and the US. New collection Banquet of the Lords of Night and Other Stories is due July 2004. Her novels include The Ghost Sister (2001), Empire of Bones (2002) -- both Philip K. Dick Award finalists -- The Poison Master (2003), and Nine Layers of Sky (2003). Banner of Souls is due in 2004. She currently lives in Brighton.    
Photo by Beth Gwinn

Liz Williams' website

Excerpts from the interview:

“I write what I define as science fantasy because it allows me to have a foot in both camps, to have my cake and eat it -- the cake being science. Although I have a background in the philosophy of science, I don't have a hard-science background. Science fiction is one of the most philosophical literatures. I did my master's in philosophy and artificial intelligence, cognitive science, in the days when they thought sentience and consciousness and intelligence were possible on a machine level, so everyone was trying to replicate that. The central question of philosophy actually is, 'What is the nature of human consciousness?' It's hard to replicate anything approaching that in a machine.”


The Ghost Sister had a very long inception, because these were the characters and the world I was writing about when I was 13 or 14. I was a typical writer's child and an only child, the sort of geeky little girl who started reading science fiction when she was about 11. I was very influenced by Jack Vance, and people like Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury. (When I got to interview Jack at Norwescon, I said, 'You have to realize that you're the reason I'm sitting here. You inspired my entire career.' And he growled, 'That's the sorta thing they oughta put me in jail for!') I started writing the derivative stuff that kids always write. But out of that world and the maps that I drew came Ghost Sister, about 13 years later. I still want to go back to that world, and I'm contracted to do so by Bantam for the novel after my next one -- it will be my chance to rectify and change, and do the things I wanted to do in Ghost Sister. Hopefully, it's the iceberg effect: you see a small part of the world, but there's more going on in the background. I'm quite tricksy like that, because I actually don't have vast amounts of background or research notes. I tend to bluff and create illusions. I think it's the magician's daughter in me, conjuring stuff out of smoke and mirrors all the time!”


“The universe is so damn big, I can't see how there could not be other intelligent life. I never had any doubts about that. There has got to be something that throws up life in some form, however unlikely it is in our neck of the woods. Getting to it is another story -- we'll probably never meet it, which depresses me. Or maybe they just don't care. Why should any life be significant to any other life? If there's intelligent life anywhere, I think it's probably focused in a similar way to ourselves. It doesn't care about us or about the ecology of its planet; it cares about what it's going to have for dinner and who it's going to see that night. In Empire of Bones I wanted to play with the idea that we are really quite insignificant, a tiny little planet right on the edge of nowhere, and the aliens have got to go and take us over because they have to finish up the paperwork on this huge project. You don't have some whopping great alien fleet turning up on the doorstep with the express purpose of colonizing and dominating the Earth; you just get a couple of bickering administrators sent in, which is basically how India came about for the British. I wanted to call the book 'The Alien Civil Servant', but they wouldn't let me!”


“My next book Banner of Souls is a standalone far-future space opera set largely on Mars. If it's about anything, it's a return to the issue of the mind/body problem. In that culture it has been scientifically established that when you die, something still remains. There's something called 'haunt-tech,' in which they haul you back and download your personality -- not into computers but into artifacts like suits of armor or the bricks of your house. Very much science fantasy. While I was writing it, the subject of death kept creeping into what was originally a fairly kick-ass, story-based space opera. My work has gotten darker and darker.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the May 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

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