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.