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.
MICHAEL Z. WILLIAMSON:
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.