The Big Idea: David Walton
The world isn’t flat. But what would it mean if it was? For his latest novel Quintessence, Philip K. Dick Award winner David Walton resurrected this and a few other ideas from antiquity and took them out for a spin. Here’s why he did it.
The “big idea” for Quintessence came from reading up on the wacky world of medieval science. People in Europe believed all sorts of crazy things before guys like Galileo and Newton joined the scene. The amazing thing is not so much how insane it all was, but how logical it was as well–as long as you weren’t too bothered about details like verifiable facts. I thought, what if it were all true? What if alchemy and astrology and all the rest of it described the true nature of the world?
Most everyone has heard of the four classical elements–Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. Fewer people realize there was a fifth element as well, in its own way more important than the other four. Quintessence (literally, the fifth essence) was the material of the heavens, the godstuff that glued the sun and moon and stars to the sky and gave them their light and power. It was out of reach, of course, hanging up there where mere mortals couldn’t touch it, and alchemists of the day spent a lot of time trying to distill it out of earthly substances. This gave me an idea. What if the Earth really was flat as well? That would mean that at the edges, where the dome of the sky stretched down to the ground, the normally distant quintessence might just come within reach.
These two ideas–quintessence and a flat earth–flashed together in my mind and lit up like an alchemical retort. A quest to the edge of the world to turn lead to gold, heal any illness, and achieve immortality? It was the stuff of great fantasy.
I knew I wanted to treat the magic of this world seriously, as if it were science, with characters who (like Galileo and Newton) discovered how it worked through experimentation and logical proof. Enter Stephen Parris, a physician who helplessly watched his son die, cursing the inadequacy of his medical knowledge. He would be driven to seek forbidden knowledge, obtained in ways unacceptable to his culture, like the theft of human corpses and secret dissections in an upstairs room. When his daughter, too, fell sick beyond his ability to heal, where would he turn? Perhaps to the alchemist obsessed with immortality and planning a voyage to the edge of the world?
My alchemical potion needed some more ingredients: A menagerie of animals living at the edge, all of whom had evolved to use quintessence for survival. A manipulative villain intent on gaining power. The threat of shipwreck, starvation, mutiny, and attacks from fantastical sea creatures. The mixture really came to a boil, though, when I added a dash of my own personal history.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life thinking about the creation/evolution debate. My Christian faith seemed to demand one conclusion, but my love of science wasn’t satisfied with any of the creationist rationale. In my research, I discovered that evolution wasn’t the first scientific topic to spark such religious controversy. Copernicus’s idea that the Earth might not be the center of the universe drew strong condemnation, for instance. Species extinction seemed impossible to Christians in the 1700s, who believed God had created the world perfect and unchanging, as did the idea that the mountains and oceans might have looked very different long ago. Even Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod met resistance: the lunatic was claiming he could turn aside the wrath of God by strapping piece of metal to his roof!
Most fantasy novels, despite the fact that they take place in medieval settings, ignore the fact that medieval European history was soaked in religious thought and conflict, and practically everyone (even the scientists) tried to understand the world through the lens of Christianity. When I thought about that, I knew that Stephen Parris would have to grapple not just with the religious establishment of his day, but with himself, as the magic he uncovered challenged his assumptions about life and the universe and everything he thought he believed.
By the time I mixed together all these elements, I had a story bubbling with arcane science, alchemy, human dissection, sea monsters, betrayal, torture, religious controversy, and magic: a heady and magical elixir. What else could I call it but Quintessence?