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?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS
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:
UFOs ARE REALLY MADE OF BREAD.
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.