The Big Idea: Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams is thinking about the entertainment media of the future in his latest novel The Fourth Wall, and despite all the technological advances that have been made in entertainment — and are yet to be made — there will still be some things that are constant, for better or worse. What things will those be, and how to they play a part in Williams’ tale? He will explain now; he has no problem breaking the fourth wall to address you directly.

WALTER JON WILLIAMS:

In the future, how will you get your entertainment?

If your answer is “via Wi-Fi,” then the only possible response is, “Well, duh.

The future of entertainment is one of the issues I raise in my new novel The Fourth Wall, the third book featuring the near-future adventures of game designer Dagmar Shaw.  But fortunately it’s not a book that’s entirely about the exciting possibilities of Wi-Fi.

And while the book I makes some guesses as to possible delivery systems for future entertainment, I realized early on that one thing wouldn’t change.  If you’re making something like a movie, you’re still going to need actors, and all that they imply.

And yes, it’s possible that in the future programmers may cross the Uncanny Valley and render a perfectly realistic electronic simulacrum of a human being out of 3D mesh . . . but you know what?  That electronic image is never going to guarantee a strong opening box office.  For that, you need actors.  You need movie stars.  You need someone who can give an interview to Entertainment Tonight, someone who can live a life that embodies the fantasy of half of Middle America, a life that can be written about in the tabloids.

Who would you rather see on a billboard?  Angelina Jolie, or the guy who headed a team to create a 3D mesh simulacrum of Angelina Jolie?

So yeah, we’re stuck with actors.  Sorry.

That’s why, though Dagmar remains the focus of the novel, my narrator is an actor.  And in fact he’s a character that had been on my mind for some time.

I remember, some years ago, seeing a documentary on former child stars and thinking, Hmm, this is a really interesting pathology.  Because so many of them would clearly have cut off their right hand with a chainsaw if it could have meant going back to their glory days . . . when they were ten or thirteen.   They hadn’t grown, they hadn’t changed, they weren’t able to look back on their lives with any kind of maturity or insight.  They just wanted it all back, except that now they were too old to be cute and they’d never, ever find their way home.

I’d been thinking about my child star character for years before it occurred to me that he’d be the ideal narrator for The Fourth Wall.  Sean is pushing thirty, his appearance has shifted from the “cute” to the “creepy” side of the scale, his parents stole all his money when he was still a minor, and his current claim on fame is that he’s trapped in a reality show called Celebrity Pitfighter.  He’s desperate enough to sign on for Dagmar’s projects even though, by now, it’s clear they come with a high mortality rate.

Why don’t I let him explain that decision himself?

In the past I’d worked for alcoholics, drug addicts, pedophiles, thieves, con men, and megalomaniacs. 

I’d never worked for a terrorist before.   But this was a terrorist with money and the offer of a job. 

And I can understand, from personal experience, how your friends can end up dead, and how it can be your fault, but not really, because you didn’t mean to do anything bad.

Working for Dagmar seems morally justifiable to me.

Sean is the victim of a pathology not uncommon in the entertainment business: he thinks that celebrity and happiness and love are all the same thing.  If he can generate headlines, if he’s the focus of all manner of unseemly attention from paparazzi and the public, it doesn’t matter quite so much if people are dropping dead all around him.  He’s happy.  He’s got what he wants.  What’s the problem?

The problem, in fact, is that Sean has a secret he can’t reveal, because then all the love would really, really go away.  Fast.  For good.  An investigation might well uncover this crucial moment in his own past, and he can’t risk that.  And so to protect his own secret, he has to figure out what’s going on, and why so many people are suddenly at risk.

Which brings him right up against Dagmar, who has secrets of her own that she doesn’t intend to share.

Dagmar’s secrets are, in fact, the science fiction part of the book.  (Did I fail to mention the book is science fiction?)  But because the science fiction parts are secret, I can’t tell you about them.  The best I can do is tantalize.  Sorry about that.

So everyone in The Fourth Wall has secrets that they’re desperate to keep.  They’re all harnessed together in a revolutionary new entertainment project Dagmar has cooked up, and they all know each other far too well, and people are getting killed for reasons that probably have to do with the secrets that other people are carrying.

One of which is the science fiction, which is quietly simmering away in the background the whole time.

The Fourth Wall has murder, mystery, action, intrigue, and glamorous Hollywood stuff.

And it has one of my favorite scenes ever, of all those I’ve ever written.   I won’t spoil it for you, except to mention that it involves cottage cheese wrestling.

Because cottage cheese wrestling is something you have the right to know about.

The Fourth Wall is nothing short of a Hollywood extravaganza.  I cordially invite you to buy a ticket.

—-

The Fourth Wall: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog.

32 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Walter Jon Williams

  1. “Because cottage cheese wrestling is something you have the right to know about.”

    That line is too damn scalziesque.

    Is WJW a clone of Scalzi?

  2. Details details details!

    (If I’d thought about it I would have known that he was older but I’ve never had an opportunity to get the first comment on a post here at Whatever and didn’t want to miss the chance….a small game for my small mind maybe?)

  3. Bought it and read it last week. As it’s the third in the series of Dagmar Shaw books, it’s helpful (though not absolutely required) to have read the first two. The cottage cheese scene is…memorable.

    I recommend it highly, along with the rest of Williams’ work.

  4. I’m typically much more of a Fantasy nerd than a Sci-Fi nerd… but this tantalizes me. You say this is the third book featuring Dagmar Shaw… Is it crucial to read the earlier Dagmar Shaw books to appreciate this?

  5. the previous Dagmar books are SF in the sense of being set in a near future world and that they explore the impact of tech in that world. They’re not SF in the sense of spaceships, singularity crap, etc. This Is Not A Game especially looks at some interesting ways that being globally networked can effect entertainment. Definitely worth a read.

    Stephen Watkins… You might like WJW’s Implied Spaces. It blurs the lines between fantasy and SF in a very clever way.

  6. I’m looking forward to reading this book. As someone who has recently started reading WJW having somehow not been reading him when he was first publishing, I’m very grateful that he has started self publishing his backlist at very reasonable prices on all major ebook platforms. I’ve been reading his backlist and there is a lot of good science fiction there. (Which is nice since there doesn’t seem to be as much SF being published these days as there used to be).

  7. Sorry for the double post, One thing that makes this book (and the Cottage Cheese Wrestling) work is Mr. Williams background in martial arts as well as his experience with alien abduction.

  8. Hm. The premise that we absolutely need actors to feast upon their behind-screen dramas is just slightly flawed. As Yahama and Crypton’s learned, to their bewilderment, fans are more than willing to make up backstories, interactions and entire relationships out of thin air, based on nothing more than a sketch, a comment, a vaguely worded statement…

    The young, perfect actress that you can project all of your inclinations onto. Now isn’t that a hilariously creepy idea?

  9. Cottage cheese wrestling? Thanks a lot, now I have to read this book. The premise is excellent and I have to find out how cottage cheese wrestling makes it into a science fiction novel.

  10. In a firsts, this Big Idea inspired me to seek out this novel. Not that I have time, but maybe it’ll lead me back to the first two Dagmar books. Now I’ve just got to finish Fuzzy Nation in between text books before The Fourth Wall arrives.

  11. @ Walter Jon Williams

    *Momentarily dons contrarian headgear.*

    Who would you rather see on a billboard? Angelina Jolie, or the guy who headed a team to create a 3D mesh simulacrum of Angelina Jolie?

    Is that a trick question? In S1m0ne, which I’ll hazard a guess you’re familiar with, Pacino’s character is far more interesting than his creation.

    So yeah, we’re stuck with actors. Sorry.

    There will probably still be actors in some sense in the future, but why assume they’ll necessarily be human or otherwise sentient? I’m not sure anything on your average Entertainment Weekly type show would pass a Turing test anyway. As someone who used to design and sell data mining and analysis software, I could easily imagine AI engines that crowdsource a “glamorous” star personality totally devoid of actual substance. In many ways it might be easier than stuffing a flesh-and-blood person into a corporate-manufactured image.

    Most of your arguments about entertainment constants seem to be predicated on the continued preeminence of things like box offices. I’m not so sure. Out of all the rapid changes taking place in our world, the entertainment industries are among the most volatile. I’m extra skeptical that anyone knows what’s immune to the march of progress where it’s concerned.

    *Removes headgear.*

    That said, I don’t read speculative fiction for accurate forecasting; I read it for the speculations. And This is Not a Game had some first-rate speculations (even if every single one of the main characters was a small-minded turd) so I expect more good things from this sequel.

    @ James Chen

    The young, perfect actress that you can project all of your inclinations onto. Now isn’t that a hilariously creepy idea?

    No, just pathetic. The need to live vicariously through caricatures of other people and the drive to be the object of that vacuous fantasy both exhibit a stunted imagination that’s on par with the atrophied musculature of a couch-potato. That’s the real pathology of the flip-sided fame-for-fame’s-sake/celebrity-worship coin. In my experience, artworks and entertainments are almost always diminished by knowledge of the artists and entertainers. The more successfully I insulate myself from extraneous information about them, the more I can appreciate their works.

    Just to be clear, I don’t hold with the sensationalized notion that everyone in Hollywood is some sort of lurid shell of a human being, any more than I believe all high financiers spend their off hours binging on hookers and blow. IMHO, those two-dimensional stereotypes of real people say more about the critics projecting their assumptions than the objects of their disdain.

  12. Gulliver,

    [quote]There will probably still be actors in some sense in the future, but why assume they’ll necessarily be human or otherwise sentient? I’m not sure anything on your average Entertainment Weekly type show would pass a Turing test anyway. As someone who used to design and sell data mining and analysis software, I could easily imagine AI engines that crowdsource a “glamorous” star personality totally devoid of actual substance. In many ways it might be easier than stuffing a flesh-and-blood person into a corporate-manufactured image.[/quote]

    Much of the value of a female star is that every young girl (somewhere in the back of her head) thinks that some day, they can become that actress. Every male over the age of 12 thinks (somewhere in the back of their head) they will have an encounter in a subway station and they will get to bang her.

    I don’t know the last time you were at the subway station and managed to pick up a virtual person; It is not as much fun. The other thing about acting is, the little micro gestures and simple unscripted ways they convey emotion. If anything, we will have real actors, perhaps much better than the ones we have today, that do not have “the look” however, they have perfect looking avatars mapped over them in post production.

    I think the people with the least job security are the stunt doubles.

  13. To anyone who’s interested but wary about this being a third in a series – no, the other two are not crucial; the POV character is different and knows little about the past doings of Dagmar. This way, you can read it without any spoilerage and then go back and read the other two and be completely surprised. I can’t recommend them highly enough; they are web-savvy technothrillers that are both topical and imaginative. The first tackles gaming and the economy; the second, military and revolution. Both are totally engrossing.

  14. Ralf – your tags are BBCode. John’s comments just use HTML tags. You could either just italicize the quoted text or use the blockquote tag.

    Italics are and (without the spaces of course… )
    Blockquote is just

    and

    again without the spaces. I had to put the spaces in or the commenting engine would have interpreted them. Hopefully, with those, it won’t. Of course if we could preview… *cough*…

  15. If you dont want a blockquote, use special entities instead of the actual less/greater than signs

    <blockquote>quote<blockquote>

    I realy like the Fourth Wall so far. ’bout halfway through.
    ‘d say that reading not a game and deep state first will help to enjoy this installment a bit more,
    they give the background about Dagmas machine turning behind the scene, as the focal char may be the lead but is still an “ousider”.

    If you like these books and need more have a look at Daniel Suarez Freedom and Daemon.

    Any recommendations of something similar?

  16. good advice

    I guess it helps to do things HTML style. < instead of [. At any rate, Thanks.

    Checking to see if you can nest tags.

  17. @ Ralf The Dog

    Much of the value of a female star is that every young girl (somewhere in the back of her head) thinks that some day, they can become that actress.

    I have a twelve year old niece that would disagree. She wants to be an astronaut. Her target career changes about once a year, but it always is science related.

    Every male over the age of 12 thinks (somewhere in the back of their head) they will have an encounter in a subway station and they will get to bang her.

    Oddly enough, I’m over twelve and have no such aspirations, either to ride subways or “bang” total strangers. In fact, that sounds downright creepy. I would even hazard a guess that this is not such an unusual feature among adult men. But I’ll concede that one of the large demographic markets for corporate entertainments is horny boys. The question is, do said boys care if the object of their hormonal fantasy is real? I wouldn’t count on it, but I could be wrong and, until convincing simulacra come along, there’s no way to test it.

    I don’t know the last time you were at the subway station and managed to pick up a virtual person; It is not as much fun.

    I prefer intimacy with real people I know well enough to feel physically attracted to them. Celebrity-worshipers don’t lust after the person behind the fantasy; they lust after the illusion.

    The other thing about acting is, the little micro gestures and simple unscripted ways they convey emotion.

    Indeed, but I don’t see why that should be fundamentally beyond the reach of a computer simulation.

    I think the people with the least job security are the stunt doubles.

    Good point.

    How in the [expletive deleted] do you get the “Quote” tag to work?

    Here’s a good online guide for using HTML. The HTML Tags link under references on the right-hand sidebar will take you to a list of common tags. Click on the individual tag names for script examples. And yes, you can nest tags. Hope that helps.
    http://htmldog.com/

    @ fan

    If you like these books and need more have a look at Daniel Suarez Freedom and Daemon.

    I second this recommendation. Suarez is one the hottest authors to his the scene in recent years.

  18. @ Gulliver,

    I have a twelve year old niece that would disagree. She wants to be an astronaut. Her target career changes about once a year, but it always is science related.

    It sounds like people in your family are smart. Half of the population is below average and the thing about the average person is, they are morons. Hollywood targets the easy half. That is why we have reality TV.

    Oddly enough, I’m over twelve and have no such aspirations, either to ride subways or “bang” total strangers. In fact, that sounds downright creepy. I would even hazard a guess that this is not such an unusual feature among adult men. But I’ll concede that one of the large demographic markets for corporate entertainments is horny boys. The question is, do said boys care if the object of their hormonal fantasy is real? I wouldn’t count on it, but I could be wrong and, until convincing simulacra come along, there’s no way to test it.

    See above. ^

    PS. You should think about riding subways, it is kind of fun.

    Here’s a good online guide for using HTML. The HTML Tags link under references on the right-hand sidebar will take you to a list of common tags. Click on the individual tag names for script examples. And yes, you can nest tags. Hope that helps.

    Thanks for the pointier. Those are good resources. I use HTML all the time. Much of the software I write outputs in HTML or XML. I was just a bit surprised WordPress accepts HTML tags, even if they are redefined by CSS. I would think you would filter them all out in the hope someone did not find a way to escape the code and run arbitrary stuff. One of the first things I do with my software is delete anything between a inclusive (or at a minimum \ it out).

    I am sure they tokenize the HTML, then re output it in a sanitized form so as to prevent evil JavaScript and stuff from executing. Not that I would be shocked if you could not get a bit of SQL to execute if you tried.

  19. Sorry, In my above post, it deleted the less than and greater than symbols. One of the first things I do with my software is delete anything between < and > inclusive (or at a minimum \ it out).

    <
    >

  20. I am sure they tokenize the HTML, then re output it in a sanitized form so as to prevent evil JavaScript and stuff from executing. Not that I would be shocked if you could not get a bit of SQL to execute if you tried.

    And in fact, this is exactly what they do.

  21. @ Ralf The Dog

    You should think about riding subways, it is kind of fun.

    Spent about six years in aggregate riding the Metro into DC most weekdays. It was fun when I was in high school and it was a way to get to the libraries and museums or tag along with my dad to law school. When it was to go to work in Pentagon City the romance wore off real quick. And the DC Metro is one of the cleaner subways in the U.S.

    Not that I would be shocked if you could not get a bit of SQL to execute if you tried.

    Heh, never thought about it before, but possibly so.

  22. I read this one last week. I really enjoyed it. As has been mentioned earlier in the comments, it does help if you’ve read the other Dagmar Shaw books but they’re not really necessary. I particularly liked the (mostly) first person point of view, it’s rare to find a book that manages to pull it off nowadays. Introduce all your friends to Walter Jon Williams, we need him to write more books for us.
    Also I want to see another story about Aristide and Bitsy, Please?

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