Interview: Daniel H. Wilson

Tell us a bit about your story.  What’s it about?

“Helmet” tells the story of a young man caught in the middle of a tribal conflict somewhere on the African continent. His people depend on walls to survive in the face of an oppressive government that uses soldiers in powered armor (called Helmets) to control the population.

What was the genesis of the story—what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

There are so many terrific stories of regular people being turned into super-soldiers by powered armor that I wanted to just turn the whole concept on its head. I started out thinking about how walls can be used to either protect people, or to trap and control people. I built a world in which walls in some form are used to do both—to the extreme. Instead of empowering the wearer, the powered armor in “Helmet” represents a nightmarish yoke of tyranny.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

This story flowed naturally for me. Like the protagonist, I have a little brother who I love and would do anything to protect. It was very personal to me on that level. As the story progresses and we explore the hopelessness and horror of this world, certain agonizing events occur and the thoughts of my protagonist turn to revenge. When there is heart behind it—I love a good revenge story.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

The story takes place in a slum city somewhere in central Africa, so I ended up looking through hundreds of pictures of favelas, shanty towns, and squatter communities to nail down the imagery. In addition, I looked at plenty of etymology to find African-sounding words that were rooted in the idea of walls and control.

What is the appeal of power armor/mecha? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do you think readers/viewers/gamers love it so much?

Technology serves to make humankind more powerful, and exoskeletons are the pure embodiment of that. Powered armor is real. Exoskeletons are a well-explored area of robotics research, and prototypes exist in the medical, military, and construction fields. A couple years ago I had the opportunity to wear the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX), and walk around wearing real power armor. It was an amazing feeling to have this machine strapped to my legs, to know it was thinking and learning how to move naturally with my body, and all the while making me stronger and more powerful. Plus, it’s great to hear that mechanical grind followed by a clomp, clomp as you walk aroundvery Robocop.

What are some of your favorite examples of power armor/mecha (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

There are so many to choose from, real and fictional. My favorite fictional example has to be the power lifter that Ripley wears to battle the alien queen in Aliens. Her piloting that big yellow mechanical beast is such a visceral experience, even to watch. Then again, you’ve got to love the grainy pictures of General Electric researchers wearing the real Hardiman exoskeletal arm (image search for “hardiman,” it’s worth it). My favorite real exoskeleton is the Cyberdyne Hal-5. It’s shiny and beautiful and a researcher wore it a few years ago to carry his paralyzed friend to the top of a mountain. Kind of says it all.