The Big Idea: Walter Jon Williams

Every author wants to have the book that’s in the right place at the right time — the one that for whatever reason captures a moment precisely. It’s not something you can predict or plan for, but when it happens, it’s a strange and wonderful thing. Walter Jon Williams is having one of those moments right now, with the release this week of his book Deep State. I could tell you more, but Williams is here to explain how his book of fiction dovetails into the reality of now.


It’s not every science fiction writer who gets to see his predictions come true the very week his book is released. But that’s the strange case with me, the Egyptian people-power revolution, and my new book Deep State.

Deep State is a sequel to This Is Not a Game, which was a near-future thriller based on alternate reality games. ARGs, for those who haven’t encountered them, are an Internet art form, utilizing every medium the online world has developed for delivering content: video, text, audio files, graphics, comix, improvisational theater, puzzles, and story are all used to create an immersive experience.

Unlike a normal online game, which ends when you log out, an ARG will pursue you into real life. You’ll start to get phone calls from fictional characters, or emails, or faxes. You’ll be encouraged to network with perfect strangers in order to solve incredibly intricate puzzles and challenges.  You may even be asked to go out into the real world and accomplish missions.

The way that the fictional elements of the ARG creep into reality inspired me to write This Is Not a Game, which is a near-future thriller in which real-life conspiracies glide into an online game, and techniques devised for solving puzzles in online games are used to solve real-life mysteries.

In TINAG, my protagonist Dagmar employed game techniques to real life more or less accidentally. For the sequel, I decided she would employ these techniques very deliberately, with an intention to produce a real-world result.

Consider what players of ARGs learn to do in the course of the game. They use and break ciphers; they find messages hidden in computer code or sandwiched between Photoshop layers; they solve intricate puzzles. They do detailed research, find hidden motivations and meanings, learn to sort truth from fancy. They form ad hoc groups to solve problems online and in the field.

What they learn, in short, are practical intelligence skills. I figured that in the new book, Dagmar would be hired by a mysterious agency to utilize her peculiar skills, not for building an online game, but for building an online revolution.

Her target? A Middle-Eastern country with an autocratic government.  (Let’s just say that my timing here turned out to be pretty amazing.)

As I began to do my research, I was impressed over and over with how modern media makes it possible to mobilize large numbers of people on short notice. Rather than go into a lot of theory, let’s take an example from real life.  Let’s look at the career of Henry Okah.

Okah was the founder of MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a movement that purported to speak for Nigerians exploited by foreign oil companies. Okah’s guerilla forces struck at pipelines, kidnaped foreign oil workers, and were in effective that they reduced Nigeria’s oil exports by twenty-five percent— one reason why world oil prices were so high during MEND’s peak years.

But it was Okah’s innovative methods of mobilizing his troops that were his real revolution. He used text-messaging to assemble his forces like flash mobs, then strike at pumping stations in order to divert oil to Okah’s barges, barges which then went to sea to offload the oil onto one of Okah’s rented oil tankers. The operations were completed before the authorities could react, and the guerillas disappeared into the population. Profits from oil sales were shared with the troops, who then purchased weapons from Okah’s munitions company, headquartered in South Africa.

This amazingly innovative guerilla entrepreneur perfected a method of mobilizing his army that will be plaguing governments for years to come.

And that’s only text messaging we’re talking about. What disruptive paradigm shifts are implied by other new media, like Semacodes, Twitter, social media like Facebook, phone cameras, instant messaging, even this humble blog?

And so I started working on Deep State. I had Dagmar employ both existing and ad hoc networks to foment her people-power insurrection, to send her rebels to their targets, conduct their demonstrations or other actions, and then disperse before the government could react.

I figured that sooner or later the authorities would work out what was going on, and shut down the Internet. Dagmar’s method of keeping in touch with the troops once the Internet was down was, I thought, fairly ingenious (it involves, for a start, land lines and a frantic search for dial-up modems).

I was writing my book.  I was having a good time.  And then the 2009 Green Revolution began in Iran.

Day after day, I watched jerky online videos of demonstrators battling police.  When the police fled, I felt a surge of blazing hope; I felt rage when Neda Agha-Soltan was gunned down on camera; I was devastated when the authorities succeeded in suppressing the protestors.

But amid all this, I had a very personal reaction that was probably more than a little selfish.  I was thinking, You bastards, you stole my book!

I was seeing individual scenes from my novel played out onscreen.  A novel that I hadn’t even finished yet, a novel that I’d packed full of shiny new ideas to impress my readers. Ideas which, in the wake of Iran 2009, were getting less new and less shiny and less impressive by the day.

For a while there, I figured I was just going to have to chuck Deep State in the trash.  But eventually I got a grip on myself, and I thought: This book needs to be packed with even more shiny!

Which, I am pleased to say, I was able to do.

But even though I crammed the book with even more new ideas, even more action, speculation, hard truth, and the odd moment of existential, hallucinatory madness, I now find that I’ve been scooped again.

I’m now watching and cheering the Egyptian revolution with the same fervid intensity with which I watched the revolution in Iran two years ago. And once again, I’m seeing scenes from my novel played out before my eyes.

And you know what? That’s great.

Every author wants to write the novel that’s completely, utterly, totally in the moment. And I seem to have done that.

And more importantly than that, the Egyptian people are experiencing their moment. May it bring them the freedom and opportunity they so clearly deserve.


Deep State: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site, which features book excerpts.

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

  1. I was able to read an advance copy of Deep State. This is a wonderful entertaining book and everyone should race out and read it today. It takes This is not a game into new and interesting places.

  2. Damn, somehow I missed This Is Not A Game. This means I now have two WJW books that I need to read. Oh, poor, poor, pitiful me.

  3. Wow – I’ve never heard of either of these and both Deep Game and This is Not a Game really sound tailor-made to appeal to my interests. Oh, and look, they are both available as eBooks for my Nook (well, DG is available 2/7) – sweet!

    Thanks WJW for writing about interesting topics like these (and congrats on how the seredipity of the Egyptian revolution relates to your novel) and thanks John for the Big Idea feature that consistently puts interesting books in front of me.

  4. This use of technology in revolutions and insurgent warfare is really showing how fourth generation warfare is different from anything before it. Cellphone video showing state military murdering civilians, short circuiting state propaganda, organizing protests, has radically altered what nonstate actors can do.

  5. Once again, I am sad (frustrated, angry) that publishers have decided to restrict distribution of their ebooks outside of the US :-(

  6. I read WjW’s “This is not a game” last year, unfortunately after reading Charles Stross’ “Halting State”. Thus the game mechanics/results vs. reality kept interrupting the story.

    But good to see a sequel that is so aptly timed, may it give us pundits a few insights.

  7. (it involves, for a start, land lines and a frantic search for dial-up modems)

    Which the Egyptians were actually doing while the Internet was off (the international voice gateways were left operational).

  8. The rebellion that failed in Iran two years ago, and is encountering rough terrain in Afghanistan is now spreading throughout the Arab world. The Egyptian and other Arab countries that are in revolt do not want what happened in Iran and Afghanistan, to be repeated in their countries. They don’t want Sharia law any more than do the people of Afghanistan and Iran, which are ruled by Shiite autocrats; it would just be exchanging autocracy for theocracy; keeping them in poverty.

    Israel will have an opportunity to reach out to refom leaders in the Arab world and support democratic regime change. What happened with Turkey can be repaired if Israel opens the borders to Gaza to humanitarian relief, stops building settlements and extending water right to Palestinian Arabs.

    Obama has an opportunity to earn that Nobel prize…

  9. I am sure this book is great and entertaining, though does the author look at the long-term consequence of these mobs so easily roused?

    That’s right, they result often in governments or rulers who then swiftly eliminate the very thing they used to gain power (after all, they know the power that can be unleashed). So while you are cheering for revolutions be careful what you wish for. The incoming may not be a friend of the new or more relevantly, as they used it they know full well how to suppress it.

  10. So one of the advantages of ebooks that I’d not realized… I went to BN and pre-ordered this since I’d read and likes TINAG and this one wasn’t out until today and, when the clock flipped over to midnight EST… B&N sent me an email telling me the book was available with a download link. The reading part of my brain liked that, the technology part loved it, the bill paying part went “uh oh, you guys are going to get us in trouble…”

  11. And here we are, Feb 11th, and Mubarak has quit! – the Egyptian revolution succeeds in overturning the rotten old dictator (and keeps his torturer from taking over). The weeks ahead will be testing but we all hope that Egypt takes real steps into the light.

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