The Big Idea: David J. Williams

Terrorism is alive and well and living in the 22nd century — and if you don’t believe that, check out The Mirrored Heavens, in which one of the US’ proudest technological achievements is attacked and US scrambles to respond. Library Journal is calling it a “stellar hard sf debut,” which must make David J. Williams, its author, feel all shiny. Here’s Williams to discuss the Big Idea behind the book, and how The Mirrored Heavens, while taking place a century from now, has its roots in what happening in space right now, here in the real world.


I consider The Mirrored Heavens to be cyberpunk where the state never withered away. Instead it grew. And grew. My netrunners (I call ’em razors) don’t work for faceless corporations, they work for faceless governments (who also mess with their memories). When I started writing the book prior to 9-11, the National Security State wasn’t exactly grabbing the headlines, but the events of the last several years have pretty much confirmed it’s something we’re going to be stuck with for a while. And I’m a firm believer that science fiction affords a unique vantage from which to analyze that State: how it moves, how it behaves, how it responds when under pressure.

Not to mention what it might look like several decades from now. History has always obsessed me (I probably read more of it than I do science fiction, and that’s saying something), so my default approach to writing SF is as future history. When I turned the novel into Bantam, there were tons of appendices: timelines, treaties, documents, schematics, etc. Most of them were cut in the name of page count sanity (they’re now up on the website,, but it was only once I’d written those that I felt able to approach the central narrative.

And I deliberately set my future only a hundred years from the present, precisely because I wanted to provide continuity: to be able to explain very clearly how the world we live in today became the world in which my characters dwell tomorrow. As to the nature of that world: I grew up during the Cold War, so maybe it’s just pure unoriginality on my part that this became the direction I took for The Mirrored Heavens. The Eurasian Coalition is a combination of a rising China and a resurgent Russia, and its domination of the Eastern hemisphere in the second half of the twenty-first century becomes the ultimate challenge for the United States, plunging the world into a second cold war that makes the first one look like a tea-party.

Alongside this geopolitical development is a technological one: the weaponization of space. Which is something that’s already starting to creep into today’s headlines. Last year China conducted an anti-satellite test. We did the same earlier this year. From a military perspective, space represents the ultimate high ground. In Gulf War Number One, Norman Schwarzkopf was hailed as a strategic genius following his crushing of the Iraqi army. But the truth of the matter is that it’s very difficult to lose a battle if you can see the enemy and the enemy can’t see you. We had—we have—the eyes in the sky, and the Iraqis did not. (Which is why the only thing that gives the U.S. military trouble today are guerilla movements that blend in amidst a population.) Any nation that wants to challenge the core of our national power will have to do so in the heavens.

By way of analogy, consider World War One. At the beginning of that war, both sides dug trenches. And then they took aircraft—which, by the way, had been around for barely a decade by that point—and sent them over each others’ positions to take a look at what the other guy was up to. And eventually the generals said, you know, can’t we do something about all these #@#$ aircraft that the other side has got flying over our heads. So then planes started sporting guns and started shooting at each other.

Thus it is with space. Space is already militarised—it’s already used for military purposes everytime we look down from the sky with a spysat. But to have it be weaponized would be a big additional step. In my book, such weaponization has occurred in conjunction with the maturation of technologies that currently are in their infancy—in particular, speed-of-light weaponry: lasers, particle beams, xasers, microwave cannon, etc. When Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s (aka SDI, aka Star Wars) he was proposing exactly these kind of weapons. Obviously the Gipper wasn’t a guy to be bothered in the slightest by the fact that the technology just wasn’t there, but the point remains that the missile shields he was proposing will eventually be entirely feasible (regardless of how we feel about that): weapons architectures that have the dual mission of safeguarding the homeland and taking out the other side’s shields.

So in The Mirrored Heavens, this weaponization of space extends all the way out to the Moon: two superpowers that have divided the whole of the Earth-Moon system between them. And that have occupied the nations of the equator in order to secure valuable launch base real-estate (since it’s cheaper to launch hardware from the lower latitudes). And that have divvied up cyberspace in order to preclude virus attacks—i.e., the Internet gets segmented along geopolitical lines in the name of national security. This is the world into which my characters are born. They’re U.S. agents charged with keeping America safe: an America that has drifted into permanent emergency/martial law in the face of a never-ending threat.

But they live to see a new era. The dawning of the twenty-second century brings fresh hope: because as the arms race accelerates out of control, and Earth’s ecosystem keeps on melting down, the superpowers finally come to their senses and sign a comprehensive series of environmental and political accords. Detente has arrived. Things are looking up.

And then the book starts.

Read David J. Williams’ blog here. Catch an interview with Williams on Fantasy Book Spot here.

17 Comments on “The Big Idea: David J. Williams”

  1. Ah, David, it’s your treatment of Russia that’s the sticking point for me. Russia was never as healthy a nation as we used to think it was, and it’s getting worse with every day. Any future history that does not deal with the reality that is Russia today or as it is heading in the future lacks verisimilitude.

    Any future history is going to have to take the death of Russia into account.

  2. I disagree – and for the record, I’m not Russian either.

    Russia as a nation is healthy as they come; Vladimir Putin may have got some things wrong, but one thing he did get right was instilling (once again) a sentiment of national pride in his people. You are probably saying Russia and thinking USSR, which was never one nation.

    This sounds like an interesting book to add to the queue.

  3. Stephen Baxter’s cover blurb has hacked into as many tired cliches as one can possible get on three lines!

  4. Obviously the Gipper wasn’t a guy to be bothered in the slightest by the fact that the technology just wasn’t there,

    In fact he acknowledged this in his so-called “Star Wars” speech. He said missile defense was a “formidable technical task” and it would take “decades of efforts on many fronts” to achieve it. But obviously those who are convinced the Gipper was a senile old fool aren’t bothered in the slightest by the actual facts.

  5. Recently, I’ve been looking at any “future history” with a bit of skepticism; mostly because of my own personal conviction that the definitive work in the matter is “Mad Max.”
    The oil is going, the environment is dying, and I reckon that in 100 years the USA will no longer be a dominant world power. China and Russia, I buy. Not the US.
    However, I’m interested in the ideas, and your writing appears good.
    Thanks for your work!

  6. I was just talking to my Physics students last week about why we mainly launch into space towards the east and more-or-less around the equator. Then I asked them how much of the United States is located on the equator…

    Dr. Phil

  7. China and Russia, I buy.

    China, I buy (maybe). But Russia? They are a demographic basket case. They have fewer people than either Pakistan or Bangladesh. If I had to make a prediction, I would say in 100 years Russia is going to be a lot smaller geographically, and a lot of what is currently Russian Siberia will belong to China.

  8. JJ @ #4: In fairness to Bantam Spectra, it should be pointed out that on the actual final front cover, they went with a much snappier blurb by Peter Watts. (“Explodes out the gate like a sonic boom and never stops… The razors of The Mirrored Heavens would eat cyberpunk’s old-guard hackers and cowboys as a light snack.”)

  9. Laur, #2

    Follow the demographics. Russia is losing 0.5% of her population every year. Russia is sick. Her health system has collapsed; her land, water,and air is polluted; she is racked by rebellion, and her infrastructure is either crumbling or has disappeared altogether.

    And we and the Russians lie about it. We lie because we refuse to face up to the danger Russia’s collapse poses to the world. Russia lies because of pride, and fear of what could happen were people to realize what’s going on.

    Williams presents an interesting alternate future history, but it’s not a possible future history for our world.

  10. Alan…

    So? Your assertion in post 1 is wrong. Any future history *that purports to be a straightline projection of the present* might have to take Russia’s decline into account. But remember, 150 years ago Russia was a formidable world power, the US was not and, in general, our current world wasn’t the one you would have envisioned.

    And, you know… if you’d like to write a future history, go for it.

  11. That’s worth a lot, PNH.

    And I’m quite interested by the Big Idea presented here; I think I’ll pick up the book.

    As to whether or not it’s ‘probable’; I think Putin is doing quite a bit to stop their ‘decline’. That doesn’t mean it’s going to work, but it does mean that they are much stronger than they looked like they were going to be after the collapse of the USSR. In a more sociological sense, the Russian spirit is an indomitable one, and I don’t expect to see a slow, gradual collapse anytime soon. At least, not on the outside.

    Perhaps historians will point out all the signs after it happens, but we in the present will most likely be blissfully unaware until the day it happens.

  12. I think post #1 is exactly right.

    The future belongs to the people who show up for it. The Russians aren’t. Any “future history” that has them not just as a “powerful nation” but as a leading world power has got a whole lot of ‘splaining to do before I buy it.

  13. JJ – why? See my comment above… If this were set in 2030 I’d agree with you and Alan… but a LOT can happen in the next 100 or more years and to assume that 2108 will look much like 2015 is shortsighted.

    Also… you know.. future history does NOT have to be OUR future history.

  14. My thanks to Scalzi for posting my essay. It’s great to see such a lively discussion, and particularly interesting that the Whither Russia question became the focus of it. I’ve got some thoughts on my blog, but in the meantime thanks a ton to everyone for chiming in . . .

  15. This book is sitting in my Amazon shopping cart right now and I’ll be buying it on payday (tomorrow! woo!), but I’m curious about the Cold War build-up concept.

    With evolution pushing war toward a fourth generation (, why would you bother militarizing space? Honestly, I can’t envision any situation in which a spysat would be useful against small-contingent insurgencies.

    Honestly, it seems like the best thing for national militaries to do going forward is to integrate more tightly with their respective national security agencies, trim the size of their conventional forces and strategic nuclear forces, and build the hell out of their special ops groups.

    I’d love to hear from the author about how 4th-Gen Warfare played into the writing of the book.

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