The Big Idea: Walter Jon Williams

This week’s Big Idea is special. Not only does famed author Walter Jon Williams explain the whys and wherefores of his big new novel Implied Spaces to you, but he also finally explains what UFOs are made of! You will be shocked and surprised, as I was. And you will also find out what, if anything, this discovery has to do with Implied Spaces. Honestly, if you don’t come out of this enlightened in one way or another, you’re just not trying hard enough. Read it again, why don’t you.

To get the ball rolling, Williams is here to admit something to you (aside from the composition of UFOs, that is). Mr. Williams, what is it that you want to admit?


It has to be admitted that I suck at dreams.

I don’t remember most of my dreams, for one thing. What little I do remember is pointless surrealism, and there’s little worse than surrealism without a point.

Early in my writing career I sometimes would wake in the middle of the night from a dream I was sure would make a good story. Always I promised to remember the dream in the morning, and always I failed. Determined not to let any more masterpieces slip through my fingers, I decided to keep a dream diary.

Sure enough, I soon woke with a brilliant literary idea. I reached for the bedside light, the notebook, and the pencil, and I jotted the idea down. Happy in the knowledge that I’d preserved a fictional treasure, I turned off the light and went back to sleep.

When I woke I grabbed the notebook and read, in very shaky handwriting, the following story idea:


Really. That’s what it said.

I briefly contemplated writing a story about a flying saucer made of pumpernickel rye, and then I gave up on the whole idea of keeping a dream diary.

Occasionally, though, I get a dream right. Back in the Eighties, I got two novels in a row out of dreams: Knight Moves and Hardwired. The first was nominated for an award, and the second remains my best-selling book to this day.

In each case, the dream wasn’t so much a dream but a fragment. An image, benign in one case, malignant in the other, that lasted only a few seconds, but that was so powerful that it conveyed a substantial emotional jolt. Though each brief vision was stunning, there was also an element of ambiguity that managed to suggest that a lot more was going on than was contained within the frame of the image— a novel’s worth, in both cases.

Since then, dreams have not played much of a part in creating my fictions, which are usually assembled out of sweat, time, and cold hard speculation.

Till Implied Spaces, anyway. A few years ago I awoke from a dream that I actually remembered, that contained some striking, powerful images, and that not only failed to be surreal but that had a plot.

I viewed the dream from the point of view of the protagonist, a person who (other than loaning me the use of his eyes) was not otherwise me. The character was a swordsman wandering through some desert country, and was employed, or had employed himself, to track down a group of bandits that had been preying on caravans. He had assembled a motley group of adventurers for this purpose, and in due time tracked the bad guys to their hideout, a hidden oasis.

The swordsman’s partner was a talking cat, who acted as a scout, and who turned out not to be the most fantastic element in the story. For when the swordsman’s posse attacked the bandits, it was discovered that the outlaws were in the employ of evil magicians. These super bad guys had blue skin, red eyes, and dressed in robes and black turbans. They had little balls that flew about on the ends of their fingers, like junebugs tied to strings, and when these balls chased you, they caused you to disappear with a clap of thunder.

It’s the sort of thing that takes a wandering swordsman aback.

I won’t spoil the suspense by telling you if, or how, the protagonist dealt with this discovery.

I’ll only mention that the first 100 pages of Implied Spaces came right out of that dream. And also that the story elements asked more questions than they answered. I had no idea who the protagonist was, other than a pair of eyeballs that I borrowed during a dream. A world with blue-skinned evil magicians, talking cats, and wandering swordsmen might not be unusual as sword-and-sorcery, but I happen to be a science fiction writer. Though I’ve sometimes written fantasy, it’s hard-edged enough so that the casual reader often mistakes it for SF.

So I amused myself by taking a sword-and-sorcery story and propping it up with science fiction underpinnings. There was a reason for the talking cat, and technological supports for blue-skinned magicians and the stuff they got up to, and a reason why the inhabitants of this desert had access only to medieval technology.

At some point I pull back and reveal all this, just like a film in which the camera tracks back to reveal what is behind the scenery. Such a “reveal” (to use fiction-writers’ cant) is intended to cause the reader to re-evaluate everything he or she knows about what’s going on.

And you know what? It was such fun to pull such a major reveal, that I kept right on revealing. As I built the plot— something I always do before I ever actually write anything— every so often I built in a big blockbuster Gotcha!, in which the camera pulls back to reveal yet more scenery all different from the previous scenery, with all sorts of unanticipated things happening in the scenery to cause the reader to re-evaluate what has gone before. Each time the camera draws back, the scene keeps getting bigger and bigger until it becomes, literally, cosmic.

One of the things I’m saying, I guess, is that you shouldn’t read Implied Spaces if you don’t like surprises.

This is a book in which the fact that human beings create whole universes out of nothing is just a part of the background. It’s not even the biggest idea in the book. A lesser writer might have been satisfied with building the novel around the people-creating-universes idea, but not me.

Quite a number of my books involve taking several Big Ideas, accelerating them to near lightspeed in my Plot Accelerator, and then smashing them together just to see what happens. Implied Spaces features invented universes, nanotechnology, bodies-on-demand, zombies, talking animals, the pervasiveness of the electronic world, magic swords, some of the freakier aspects of wormhole physics, a not-quite-Singularity, and a lot of Big Questions— questions about why we’re here, why the universe was made, what our purpose is, and so on. (Questions, by the way, which I make bold to answer.)

There’s also a love story. Did I mention the love story?

And poetry. I don’t know how smart it is to mention the poetry, it might make people not want to read it. Suffice it to say that while I am not a good poet, I can imitate one when I have to.

I’ve lately been oppressed by the feeling that, in the last few books, I’ve been sort of holding myself back, trying to give the reader not so much what the reader wants, but what some executive in a publishing company thinks the reader wants.

No more. When it’s gonzo universe creatin’ time, the gonzo get creatin’!

I’m back, and I’ve got a Plot Accelerator and I know how to use it!


Read Walter Jon Williams’ blog here.

28 Comments on “The Big Idea: Walter Jon Williams”

  1. I’m gonna order this book. I often dream “from the point of view of the protagonist”. I havn’t had one in a while but I do get these EPIC dreams, with beginnings, middles, ends.

    Who doesn’t like suprises when reading?

  2. First, DO NOT READ the description when you click on the link to buy, because it’s disappointing. WJW’s description was really involving, and I rushed to go to Amazon and…..the Amazon description pulled all the magic out and just made it seem dull by comparison. And be patient, Amazon SAYS it’s a 5 to 8 week shipping time….????

    Anyone with oh say a contact at Nightshade Books care to comment on THAT one??

  3. Michael Kranjcevich:

    The book was delayed slightly due to some printing issues. I don’t suspect the actual shipping time will be that long. I know that when OMW was briefly out of stock at Amazon, they slapped up the “5 to 8 week”notice. Three days later it was back in stock.

  4. I need this book, desperately. If it’s even half as engaging as the description the author gives, it could become my favorite Walter Jon Williams novel yet – and I’ve been a fan for some time.

  5. OH… MY… GOD! Scalzi, you got the ‘Walter John Wiliams’ on your blog. Dude, you’re gonna be famous! (Not quite as big as that guy with the Bacon Cat thing, but almost.)

    I have to say, I’ve been a huge fan of WJW’s ever since reading “Voice of the Whirlwind” shortly after it came out. (I’m giving away my age here.) On the rare occassions that I get to do any Sci-fi RPG gaming – I’m a huge fan of Cyberpunk 2020 and I always like to reread Voice of the Whirlwind to get in the right mood. Thanks for (yet another) kick-ass ‘Big Idea’. (That said I’m going to go broke or blind with all the good new books damn you.) :)

  6. Brad:

    WJW is pretty awesome. I met him when I was but a baby writer at the 2003 Worldcon, and he was very gracious to me.

  7. Brad, I’m having the same problem with these Big Ideas – too many books I NEED to read, too many new authors (new to me, I mean) to catch up with!

  8. i really liked Hardwired when I was a kid. It did funny things to my brain and never saw the world the same again.

  9. Coolio! That goes on the to-be-read list, right after I finish Schroeder’s Queen of Candesce (Teh Awesome!) and Hamilton’s latest brick, The Dreaming Void (if, like me, you like that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like).

  10. Wow, a new WJW book. I’ve been staring at the shelf at my local Hastings every visit, and I am disappointed each time. Great to hear he’s got a Big Idea novel soon. Yay!

  11. WJW has a cat character in a novel dealing with the singularity, Charlie Stross has a cat in a novel dealing with the singularity . . . (of course, WJW also has “Red Elvis” but I digress). So whassup with all this cats and singularity lovin? When do the dawgs get equal time? I am sorry I even have to bring this up . . .

    I personally think this Cataganda, i.e., the propaganda distributed to make the coming dogpocalypse more palatable, nay, even inevitable is right here in front of our EYES . . . MAN!!

    Sheesh. Don’t make me bust out the Aynlein Heinrand . . .

  12. While I appreciate the honest about poetry, you [WJW] are right that it does warn me away…

    Fortunately, there’s enough else that it looks like a book for the list. Sounds like it was fun to write… though could it be as much fun as the UFOs are made of bread book?

  13. Also, the cover art is awesome. This is one case where the cover art hooks me, though I’ve never read a book by Mr. Williams.

  14. …Aynlein Heinrand… if I’d had a mouthful of tea when I read that, TexasPatrick would be getting a bill for one new keyboard!

    And another novel to add to my “Books I Should Make Time To Read” list – do you know how long that sucker is now?

  15. Would a bread-based UFO run on olive oil and hummus? My first thought was that it would run on PB&J, but then I realized that a dense, thickly-crusted artisan bread would be needed to keep the vacuum of space at bay.
    Anyway, as PB&J goes better with a lighter, sliced bread I figured you probably wouldn’t be able to power your interstellar loaves with it.

  16. Hardwired was one of my formative books – along with Neuromancer and Snow Crash. Yes, I know, pretty typical.

    I met WJW last year. Really nice guy. I will probably pick up this book at some point. My reading stack seems to be getting bigger instead of smaller, no matter how many books I buy and how late I stay up playing GTA IV. (Hmm, I may have just found the problem.)

  17. Dammit, Scalzi, that’s another book you’ve made me run out and buy. That’s four this year, not counting anything you’ve written. It’s cool, though. I haven’t read anything by WJW in years. Thanks!

  18. Thank you all for your enthusiastic response. I happen to be really stoked about this book.

    Latest word from Night Shade is that the book should ship on May 26, so it should be in y’all’s hands a good deal before the 5-8 weeks promised by Amazon.

  19. Personally, I’m kind of annoyed that Night Shade keeps hyping this book when their own website says it should have been out a month ago (way to keep your own site up to date for the fans!). Amazon first said it would be out soon and then moved it out to “5 to 8 weeks,” which is how Amazon says “The publisher says soon but we have no frickin’ clue when that will be.”

    It would be nice if *someone* (anyone!) could tell us when this book will actually be out. The author? The publisher?

  20. TexasPatrick @ 13

    Dawgs have City by Clifford Simak.

    Of course that was a while ago. While doesn’t have a singularity it definitely has post human transcendence.

  21. 16: Wirelizard: Sorry about the mouth-plosion . . . okay, not so much, but cool.
    23: Ethelred: Gotta bring our dogs . . . :-)
    20: WJW: And anyone else who may be more in the know . . but I’ve read a large portion of this book, I’m sure, in an anthology of stories, the theme being “detective” stories. The ground rules were: Play fair: make it a real story not one where the gizmo gets you out of the scrape. I think there was a Mike Resnick story, and maybe two or three others. Am I wrong?

  22. Fantastic! It’s been a while since I read WJW’s stuff, but I’m pretty sure I have it all on a shelf in the basement. Might be time to revisit some…

  23. I SO want this book, but Amazon UK has slapped a “currently unavailable” on it, which means I can’t even put it in my basket for later; I had the same problem with Gene Wolfe’s “Pirate Freedom” (and with “The Last Colony”, but in that case I ordered direct from the US via ABE and Amazon lost out! Hah! (but it did cost rather more…)

    Has anyone any idea when it will be published in the UK, or available as an import on Amazon UK?

  24. Sorry not to respond earlier. I was traveling, and I blame— well, I blame =me=, is what I do.

    Paul S, Currently, Amazon is allowing you to pre-order. Or they =say= they do, anyway.

    Yes, a chunk of the novel was published in Mike Resnick’s ALIEN CRIMES anthology. (Mike kindly let me bend the rules: there are no aliens in the excerpt, there are just some damn weird people.)

    But if you want to read the =end= of the story, you’ll have to buy the novel. Sorry.

    I’m still waiting myself, and I suspect I’m in more suspense than the rest of you put together.

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