Ian Douglas, H. Jay Riker, Robert Cain… all pen names. All belonging to one man: William H. Keith Jr. An author of over more than 150 titles, he has written and forgotten more books than most authors of this generation will ever produce. And today, he’s with us to talk about the military science fiction craze before the turn of the century.
Before we begin, the first thing we got to ask is… how the heck did you find time to write so many books? Your late 80’s and early 90’s bibliography is incredibly prolific.
The real question is why can’t I be that prolific now? When I stared writing in the early ’80s I was turning out about six books a year, one every two months. Now it’s more like two, maybe three books a year, which is pathetic. Of course, the reason is my current works are longer, more detailed, more carefully crafted. But I DO wish I could turn them out faster.
The breaking point— literally— came in May of 1993 when I had the opportunity, as “H. J. Riker,” to write a thinly fictionalized historical series about the U.S. Navy SEALs. For various reasons, though, I was on an incredibly tight deadline for the first book— due by the end of May. Somehow, I turned out 150,000 words in thirty days, a process I still refer to as “Maying out.” I wasn’t good for much afterward.
You’ve done some impressive military science fiction work in your time. What drew you to it in the first place, and which are you proudest there of?
The seminal mil-SF work for me was Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. That’s the book, dammit, not the travesty of a movie that happens to share the same title. It’s the classic coming-of-age work, with a kid leaving high school and becoming a man in Marine boot camp. I still vividly recall that magical moment called “the hump” when I was in boot camp myself, and remembered Heinlein writing about it. Anyone who’s been in the service has had the same experience.
Before that, I’d grazed on a lot of space opera— especially Bova’s The Star Conquerors and E.E. Smith’s Lensman saga. I was a sucker for galactic vistas and skies crowded with warring starships. Still am. But Heinlein made the military experience and the camaraderie and the sense of esprit de corps real for me. War is about ordinary people in truly extraordinary circumstances, and I think that’s why I’m drawn to military fiction.
Let’s kick off talking about BattleTech some. When you started writing Decision at Thunder Rift, did you have any idea it would blossom into a series of over 100 books? Was there a moment that you knew you had started something big?
I knew FASA— the game company that owned BattleTech— wanted to launch their own equivalent of the D&D Dragonlance novels, and, of course, they went on to do just that. My initial contract with them was for three books… and in fact I only did two more for them after those. I was just one of a bunch or writers turning out BattleTech novels; I certainly had no idea that the Gray Death Legion would become as popular in just five books as it did.
…or did you mean when did I realize that I would eventually turn out over 100 books personally? There was no defining moment with that. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was in elementary school. I kept telling friends I was chasing to catch up with Isaac Asimov. Haven’t caught him yet, but I’m working on it.
What were some of the inspirations that went into the Gray Death Legion? What was your favorite thing about writing that series?
The genesis of the Gray Death was a discussion with FASA’s editors about what a BattleTech mercenary unit would be like, and I set out to show how such a unit might come together and make a name for itself. There was some inspiration from David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series, of course, as well as Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai books and Jerry Pournelle’s Falkenberg’s Legion stories. In the early ’80s, those were pretty much the go-to books on SF mercenary units.
What was my favorite part about writing BattleTech? Well… not to burst anybody’s bubble, but, you know, building 12-meter-tall anthropomorphic combat machines is a really silly idea. There was a lot about that universe that struck me as utterly ludicrous. I took it as a challenge to see if I could write stories that actually had BattleMechs make sense, and that was a lot of fun.
For instance, in Thunder Rift, there’s a place where a couple of Mechs are up on top of a cliff, and the enemy is moving up the valley below them. The Mechs lie down to avoid silhouetting themselves against the skyline, and use their weapons to snipe at the enemy. People were amazed that I did that. To me, it was common sense. Think colonials and redcoats.
Of course, there was a lot of dumb stuff I couldn’t do anything about. “Long-range” missiles that are out-ranged by a Kentucky Long Rifle and not being able to aim a heavy machine gun at the cockpit of a light Mech standing right in front of you both come to mind….
Later, I wrote a series of six books called Warstrider, and those I loudly proclaimed would be BattleTech done right. Non-humanoid combat machines controlled by direct neural circuitry and mounting decent weapons… yeah, I had fun with that.
Bolo Rising was a pretty amazing read. What was it like stepping into Laumer’s world? How did writing for the Bolo series come about?
It was incredible! I’d discovered Laumer in the late ’60s when I read a Bolo short story called “The Last Command,” and I’d been a fan ever since. AI combat machines that are more loyal, more dedicated, more steadfast, more honorable than the idiot humans around them… incredible stuff.
A book packager, a good friend and business associate of mine— Bill Fawcett— was working with the people who controlled the Laumer estate after his death, and he asked if I’d be interested in writing some Bolo novels. It was a literal dream come true. My work in the game industry—BattleTech et al, and actually going back to GDW’s Traveller— had taught me how to shape my writing style to match the flavor of a shared universe, and this was a similar exercise.
In Bolo Rising, your protagonist was Hector, an AI-controlled Bolo tank. Throughout the course of the book, you succinctly explained some of how a Bolo’s mind works with holonomic brain theory (ie, memory as a holograph). Did some of the research that went into that title later lead to The Science of the Craft?
Not specifically. Holonomic theory had been around since the ’60s, specifically thanks to two researchers, Karl Pribram and David Bohm. I was vaguely aware of their work when I wrote the Bolo novels, but I didn’t go into detail. It was mil-SF space opera, fer Pete’s sake, not a treatise on neurology.
A few years later, though, I ran into descriptions of some of Pribram’s and Bohm’s work in a book by Lynne McTaggart with the grandiloquent title of The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe. That book became one of my primary resources in The Science of the Craft, in which I talked a fair amount about the brain as a holonomic system.
Holonomic theory is still seen as fringe-element stuff and is not taken seriously by most researchers in the field, but I think it has a lot going for it. In particular, memory— or our access to memory—appears to be spread over a large part of the brain’s surface rather than isolated in discrete areas. You can’t point to one spot on your brain and say “my memory of my first day at school is located here.” That means it does act in many ways like holography.
The Science of the Craft was a unique departure from your usual repertoire of works. How much time was invested in researching it, and how personal did it become while writing it?
Yes, my only non-fiction book to date, depending on your views of what constitutes fiction! Um… it was already personal when I began the project, and was something I’d wanted to do for a long time. For decades I’d had this split personality thing going… I’m trained in medicine and science and I’m fairly skeptical to begin with… but I had a long-term fascination for things like ceremonial magic, ESP, witchcraft, and alternative healing. I’m a practicing witch, I’m a Reiki master… and most scientifically trained people will throw the whole lot out without even looking at any of it. A belief in magic—real magic— just doesn’t fit with the current scientific worldview. Not yet.
But my interest in quantum physics had shown me ways in which magic might be explainable. One of the central tenets of quantum physics is that what’s happening inside your mind is inextricably bound up with what’s happening in the world around you. In a very real way, what you think about is what you bring about. The Science of the Craft allowed me to delve into this mind-reality connection, to explore both the history of physics and the nature of the occult, and to draw conclusions about the reality of witchcraft. There is so much garbage out there about this woo-woo stuff; I wanted to write a book for scientifically inclined people like myself who were fed up with fuzzy New Age crap about “raising your vibrations.” It’s the book I wish I’d been able to read when I first began exploring the Craft.
Do you have an idea for a story that you never had time to put on pages? What is your dream project?
Oh, I have dozens of them! But probably the one prospective project that stands out for me is one with the working title “Bronze Atlantis.”
A very good case can be made for the idea that Atlantis was real, that it was located, as Plato insisted, in the Atlantic, probably just off the coast of Spain, and that it really did threaten the Mediterranean world. When Plato said Atlantis existed “9,000 years before the birth of Solon,” though, he threw everyone off. His description is clearly of a Bronze-age city, but there is simply no way that what he describes could have existed in 10,000 BCE.
But the Egyptian priests who passed the information on to Solon, Plato’s ancestor, used lunar calendars that substituted months for years. Nine thousand months before Solon places the sinking of Atlantis in around 1200 BCE, and that is a fascinating period in history. The unknown copper miners of upper Michigan suddenly vanished, the Bronze Age in Europe came to an abrupt end, the work on Stonehenge ceased, and mysterious populations called “the Sea Peoples” invaded the eastern Mediterranean and came that close to overrunning Egypt. The Greeks destroyed Troy, which Homer says was aided by warriors from Atlantis, the Hittite Empire was overthrown by peoples unknown, most of known civilization came crashing down in ruin… and the victorious Egyptians under Rameses III recorded that the Sea Peoples had come from a homeland in the far west that had sunk beneath the sea.
So I have in mind a trilogy set in that time and around those events. Problem is… what would it be? Fantasy? Historical romance? Military history? Alternate history? Marketing the thing would be a bear. But I can dream….
Thanks for your time Bill! It’s been a pleasure.