The Big Idea: Michael Z. Williamson

Authors, the next time you whine and moan about your difficulties writing at home (or in a coffee shop or whatever), spare a thought for Michael Z. Williamson, whose latest book Contact With Chaos got done not in the comfort his home office or his local Starbucks, but while he was deployed in a war zone. That’ll put your wobbly coffee shop table into a bit of perspective.

A war zone filled with flying metal (in the form of planes; Williamson is in the Air Force) is also an interesting place to posit a civilization without metal. How would it work? Could it work? Williamson’s here to break it down for you.


I started with the idea of a non-metal, but technological culture. Just how far advanced could they be?  Selective breeding is pretty obvious, and so are certain glass, ceramic and chemical industries. Remember that during the Iron Age, most tools were actually wood. Metal as a mass medium of manufacturing is less than a century old.

However, with research, it turns out a great many modern technologies don’t require metal if you work around them.  Obviously, gunpowder isn’t a big deal.  Neither are modern nitrated explosives, though. Alcohols and obsidian blades allow surgery and antiseptic procedure…so if a culture has a scientific mindset, they can develop quite a few things.  Certain photo etching and printing techniques, ceramic rocket nozzles for artillery, poison gas of course…and bakelite and fiberglass pressure vessels for limited steam power and air conditioning.  Really.

This brings a culture up to almost WWI levels, with some workarounds for things like harvesting trees without chainsaws, more labor intensive digging, though explosives do allow for modern mining.

Of course, how would a habitable planetary system develop without surface metals?  Well, really, the only two metals I had to worry about were iron for tools and copper for wire.  Without those, most other metals are almost unobtainable.  So, if there are no large impactors, and an acidic environment, what metallics come out of volcanic action will dissolve quickly, and metal meteorites will be rare enough not to matter.  So the planet still had a dense core, and all the lighter metals for biological processes.  Someone explained the workings of aluminun-magnesoglobin for oxygen transfer, but as long as it works, I’m happy in my ignorance of the details.

As to writing it…I had some personal issues at home, including a pending deployment (Scalzi knows about the deployment.  He was the Emergency Holographic Michael Williamson, GoH, at InConJunction in my stead), then I deployed, (ever tried writing a novel at the end of 12-15 hour shifts 6 days a week in a war zone, with one day off to do laundry, clean gear…oh, and respond to the occasional disaster that knocks base power down and requires all engineer personnel to report in?  With a roommate with very annoying habits in a tiny room in what’s effectively a doublewide trailer with 30 NCOs in it, in 126 degree heat, with sandstorms, and very intermittent internet connections due to sandstorms, and very limited wireless because of the risk of interfering with air ops?  Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical), then I came back, and then I had, and still have, service connected illness…but at the time, all I knew was that I was waking up gasping, hacking up my lungs until I choked, then kicking into an asthmatic reaction, then clogging up, then crashing asleep for two hours, then repeating.

I don’t recommend this as either a motivation to write, a good way to write, nor even as a character building exercise.

Still, somehow I got it written, and while it’s not the best I’ve done, I think I pulled the big idea off well enough.

Oh, wait–there’s more.

I’ve never liked that “We come in peace/war, take us to your leader” meme for first contact.  We’re not a monolithic culture, and I don’t expect others are.  I fully expect capitalists, pirates, crusaders, do-gooders, missionaries and warriors, from three or four different cultures, all to mix it up together, which historically is what happened.  It’s also foolish to expect the aliens to be simple or unified, and it’s a mistake to assume that their technological level dictates their intellectual capabilities or threat level.

So that’s one big idea—I call it “Stonepunk”–and a twist on the usual starry-eyed idealism.

I titled it “Beads and Trinkets.”  Toni at Baen insisted that didn’t have the right sound.  I wasn’t thrilled with “Contact with Chaos” at first, but it seems to have been prophetic in several ways.  It also does fit the story, and looks good on the cover.

And I’m really interested to know how it works for the reader.


Contact With Chaos: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Michael Z. Williamson’s blog. View an audio interview with him.

48 Comments on “The Big Idea: Michael Z. Williamson”

  1. How does this novel compare to other low-metal SF worlds, such as in Vernor Vinge’s Tatja Grimm stories?

  2. Thank you Mr. Williamson for your service. I/m looking forward to reading his book.

  3. Steven: I’m not sure. I haven’t read the Vinge ones. I have some de Camp Viagens stories here, and I haven’t read them, either. I became aware of both after the fact. I plan to look at them, of course.

  4. This is an excellent book. Williamson manages to get down to the nitty-gritty of how a working “technolithic” civilization would work, and the sorts of difficulties they’d face with the materials limitations they’d have to deal with.

    At the same time, the tech never interferes with the story, which has a lot to do with just WHO the “primitives” are in this situation. There are a lot of delightful surprises and a very satisfying resolution. I won’t give you any spoilers. This is a well worth re-reading book, but the first time should be filled with the enjoyable surprises.

    Geeks such as myself are going to have a lot of fun time trying to pick Williamson’s tech tree for the aliens apart.
    Everybody else plus geeks can enjoy a rollicking good story.

  5. Any gratuitous insults towards currently-existing Democratic groups this time around, as in “The Weapon”?

  6. This definitely gets added to my list of books to buy. One of my recurrent complaints about much SF is that when find inhabited planets, too often, they’re populated by some monolithic race/culture/government…and that’s always irked me. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in a book that purposely turns those ideas on their heads.

    As a side note, I emailed Michael when I had quibbles about something in one of his previous books and I got a well-considered reply from him in response, (actually a few emails back and forth). He didn’t convince me that his mindset was necessarily the right one, but there’s no question that he’s a mensch.

  7. I recently discovered Williamson’s books a couple weeks ago at Uncle Hugo’s. While I thought “Freehold” was very good (reminds me somewhat of Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, lots of philosophical stuff with the action kicking in later), I really loved “The Weapon”. I am currently half way through Contact with Chaos and am not disappointed. In my opinion, if you enjoyed Heinlein, you will enjoy Williamson.

  8. Richard: There were a LOT more gratuitous insults in Better to Beg Forgiveness… and I’m writing a sequel to that now. It may not have as much political sniping, but it will have the action and sarcasm.

  9. But where do the Skeksis come into it? Or is that another case of the cover artist reading two paragraphs then running with whatever they were wanting to do anyway?

    I LOVED The Hero and must read this one.

  10. @Richard: The future Earth in that universe is fascist, not socialist. I may not have given enough backstory yet, because a lot of readers haven’t picked up on that. Of course, statists of all types have some common attitudes.

    @James: Kurt had to do the art before I was finished–I ran late–and he had only a partial MSS to work from. The Ishkul should be flatter faced, and not quite so gatorlike. It’s a striking cover, though.

  11. His covers usually are striking. The gator attributes could be from illustrating too many Posleen. You have to admit it resembles a Dark Crystal sequel though.

  12. Mr. Williamson – a question:

    How did you work out the problem for a low-metal civilization developing electronics and computers? In my ignorance, it would seem that without metal, it would be difficult to develop any coherent theory of Electro-Magnetism?

    I’m curious for your response — I was intrigued by the concept presented here!

  13. Evil, Evil, Evil.

    After many moons of Big Ideas I could happily pass over things like this come along forcing me to spend money again!

    Looks good – and I liked everything else I’ve read so…….

    Out comes the card.

  14. Entaro Adun Executor!

    Heinlein always had political sniping at politically current groups and movements in his writing. It is hard to recognize now because those groups and movements are ancient history now.

    Now before Mad Mike gets too much of a swelled head, no, I am not comparing you to RAH.

  15. Just as a note for you guys who haven’t read any of his work, there is one book of his, Freehold, in the Baen free library, as well as a few video interviews done by a mil blog.

    I haven’t read any of them yet, though I have several in the pile from various webscriptions I’ve bought, but they certainly sound interesting.

  16. Josh: They don’t have electrical power. They do have steam and hydraulic. Though it is possible to use mineral salts to generate DC, and even make a liquid core for radio reception. I don’t know enough for the details.

  17. Josh @16

    May I suggest reading the book. Also recall that computers are not necessary to a heck of a lot of technology. Sure they make mind numbing calculations easier but slide rules and semaphores and so on can easily substitute for electronics and telecomms…

    PS my full review is here:

  18. A great story for all aspiring writers to keep in mind when they “just don’t feel up to writing.” Hope you don’t mind if I pass it along.

  19. I’ll have to buy the book because I’m not sure I understand how this works.

    If you eliminate all metals from the surface environment, how does the biochemistry work? Eliminating iron and copper (and presumably magnesium) eliminates hemoglobin, hemocyanin (copper based blood in most molluscs) and chlorophyll as options for oxygen/CO2 transport. Or perhaps the ban on metals enforced by culture as much as by environment?

  20. I’ll look for this novel; sounds good. My first encounter with this idea was in the excellent C. M. Kornbluth novella “That Share of Glory,” much of which takes place on a world with metal-free technology (into which metals have just been surreptitiously introduced, we learn at the end).

  21. Bozo: As was noted above, the only metals that are relevant are the ones that can fabricate tools. All the light metals require either electricity, or high temp/pressure/catalytic chemistry to refine. Bronze and iron are the keys.

    Most iron on Earth is from meteoric sources. The heavier metals (including copper) are quite rare. They’re also rather reactive. An acidic environment breaks them down into oxides fast, and if you don’t know what to look for, then you don’t develop them–consider that the Ojibwa and Iroquois sat on top of the Lake Superior Hematite and coal for centuries and never put the two together.

    If you have good chemical and hydraulic technology, metal is somewhat secondary, and if you’ve never used it, it’s not something you go looking for.

    So, aluminomagnesoglobin with an acidic body chemistry allows for O2 transport, and most minerals are available to allow for metabolic processes. There’s probably even iron and copper in solution, rather diffuse. And there’s a detailed discussion in the book.:)

  22. Thanks for the responses!

    FrancisT @ 24: Well-written review. Helped clear some things about the book up for me.

    I think I just may go out and get the book.

    When I think of it, many forms of technology are possible without metals. Early computers used vacuum tubes; the electricity could indeed come from a chemical source. I wonder if many of the discoveries in quantum dynamics and such would be possible without metal? The photoelectric effect, for example: it wouldn’t be any more or less difficult to explain without metals (would it?), and the revolution that discovery kicked off had major impact.

    What constitutes the really interesting discussion is how the lack of metals dictates a society’s scientific and cultural progress through time – what sciences are left totally unexplored? That and other questions are ones I look forward to reading about in the book :)

    I’m reminded of a short story (dammit, can’t remember the name or the author – Arthur C. Clarke comes to mind, but I’m unsure) about how the physics for FTL/Antigravity were quite simple, so many races discovered it, with humanity, due to a fluke, being the exception. As a result, humans advanced much more in other areas, while FTL-aware races, having reached their percieved pinnacle of science, used technology reminiscent of the 18-19th century. When the aliens paid late 20th century humans a visit, instead of being the subjugators, they ended up being the subjugated.

  23. Looks like a book I *have* to read! Thanks for your service, Michael!

    Josh E @30 – The last book you mentioned sounds very interesting. If you happen to remember the name, let me know!

  24. Tim @ 32 –

    I’ll dig around my library this evening and see if I can find the story – it’s a great short piece.

    The only real specifics that I remember is that the aliens were playing the conquistador card, and were described as vaguely ursinoid. In their starships, they used some captured animal as an air scrubber, with bioluminescent animals as internal lights. Their weapons were, of course, cannons of the cannon-ball variety and muskets of the well, musket-ball variety. They landed on the UCLA campus, checking the environment with canaries first.

    Anyone else twigging to which story I’m referring to?

  25. Josh @ 30

    You are looking for “The Road not Taken” by Harry Turtledove.

    It is chapeter 22 in “3xT” which can be found at or at probably any reputable bookstore. I remember first reading it in Analog, but I couldn’t tell you which issue to look for.

  26. Yup, they landed, lined up their musketeers to awe the natives, and then the CA National Guard returned fire with tanks and machine guns. BWUAHAHAHAHA

    And you’re all welcome, and don’t have to thank me. I volunteered in 1985, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2005, 2007…

  27. I finished reading this one about a week or so ago, and I highly recommend it to anyone. If you’re familiar with Mike’s military SF novels (like Freehold and The Weapon) or his present day military thrillers (The Scope of Justice series), I’ll tell you right away that it’s different — but it’s the GOOD kind of different. And yes, there is definitely enough action (IMHO) mixed in between the political intrigues to keep any SF action buff happy — it is Michael Z. Williamson after all.

    And if you’re new to Mike’s writing — this is a really good place to start.

  28. Both gold and platinum are low-reactive and excellent electrical conductors, not at the level of silver or copper but good.

    Most modern electronics use semi-conductors, glass with patterned impurities.

    The original Franklin experiments used things like cats fur and string, think kite.

    Getting from the Franklin experiments to the Pentium would involve steps I wouldn’t want to think about, much less try to write about.

    I can’t tell from the entry and posts if iron and silver are unknown or simply rare. Napaleon had a table service of aluminium because of its rarity and expense.

    Never read any by Williamson but will be checking out the Baen library and if I like it buying some.

  29. @34, 35 –

    That’s it! I have no idea why I thought of ACC for that story… should have twigged to Turtledove earlier, given the alternative history premise to the story. Thanks for being brainPal-ish! :-D

  30. I had this open on my desk when the post went up; I’m not quite done – page 299 of 325 – but close enough.

    Freehold I rate as superb. The Weapon is more disturbing but also excellent. I don’t think that Contact with Chaos is at the same level (and I hate the title, but that’s a minor thing); on the other hand, the characterisation is excellent (for the most part – Margov seems a little 2D) and I did enjoy the alternate tech tree stuff. On the gripping hand, having to write whilst in a war zone is a good excuse!

  31. Hmm, deployed soldier writing it, bright yellow blocky font…

    *speculates about publisher*

    *checks Amazon*

    Yup. Though I really ought to be able to just tell by the cover art and font. Predictable is nice, and makes sense market wise, but god, Baen’s art department bores the heck out of me some times.

  32. Somebody mentioned a ‘Freehold series’, do I need to read the previous books? The idea seems interesting and this book costs less than 5 euro through the webscription, so I was going to buy it, if it doesn’t require me to buy three other books to enjoy it fully…

  33. Giacomo @41

    a) No need to read the previous books – I think its enough to read the 1 para summary I give in the review linked to in my previous post
    b) Freehold is available in the Baen FREE library anyway so why not read it?

    NTSC @37. Gold platinum tend to be brought to the (near) surface due to volcanic activites and meteor strikes. The planet doesn’t have much of either hence little or no near surface deposits.

    The point is that on earth copper and tin (and gold and silver) were fairly easily found at first in surface deposits in raw form. Only once those surface deposits were exhausted did people start looking for these metals elsewhere. If you have a civilization that develops without these metals over a millenium or ten then even if someone develops the chemistry to extract these and other metals from their ores they will tend to become more of a curiousity than something of use. Its rather like the steam engine that some greek developed in Alexandria – pointless beyond being a curiousity when you’ve got plenty of slaves and no real need for pumping deep mines.

  34. These metals would remain a curiosity only until some engineer saw something using them or a Franklin discovered a use for them.

    Uranium wasn’t that useful until some time in the 1930s, would need to reread Fermi’s biography to get a firmer date. Cesium and Rhubidium were so useless that they were given to Fermi when he went looking for them for some experiments.

    You can build a NAND gate using fluidic logic and I think I’ve seen it using air as the fluid, so computers wouldn’t be impossible without electronics. Fluid logic was used in places that you could not risk sparks, I became aware of it in about 72.

    It is a very interesting concept.

  35. @ntsc: Or use abaci and slide rules, which are much simpler to make, and as effective.

    There are responses to pretty much every criticism above, but I’m not going to rewrite 323 pages of book and ~100 pages of notes in a blog post, though:)

    It does reinforce that Thoreau’s philosophy, vice Aristotle, still persists: criticism does not need knowledge.;)

  36. @FrancisT: thank you. I’m reading the sample chapters, for now it seems nice. I think I’ll buy it to see how it ends.

  37. I have read all your books and thought that The Weapon and Freehold were as good as anything I have ever read. I was less impressed with some of your other books, though I continue to enjoy anything that takes place in your ‘Freehold’ universe. Is there any chance of a sequel for the weapon or a book with Chinran (father and/or daughter) as the main character?

  38. Finished CwC last night after several weeks of reading in snatches.

    I admit I’ve never read any of Williamson’s previous books (something that is getting rectified immediately!) yet was able to enjoy and understand the Freehold universe, their politics, and societies.

    Should a sequel come about, I’ll be among the first in line to get it.