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?


Quintessence: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

28 Comments on “The Big Idea: David Walton”

  1. Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters was also based on the idea of “classical science was right” and it was excellent. Looking forward to seeing what this book does with it.

  2. I’d just like to say, that I am going out and buying a copy right now for my Kindle.

    Aspiring authors take note: Scalzi’s “Big Idea” actually works to get folks to buy your books. Bestow your platitudes accordingly.

  3. Gah. Medieval people (at least scholars and sailors) knew the world was round. Still sounds like a great concept for a book, though.

  4. Are you using the Babylonian cosmological model as described in Genesis?

    Baruch 3 gives more detail on the tower of Babel:
    (Baruch 3:7-8)
    7 And the Lord appeared to them and confused their speech, when they had built the tower to the height of four hundred and sixty-three cubits. And they took a gimlet, and sought to pierce the heaven, saying,
    8 Let us see (whether) the heaven is made of clay, or of brass, or of iron. When God saw this He did not permit them, but smote them with blindness and confusion of speech, and rendered them as thou seest.

    463 cubits is approximately half the height of the Empire State building.

  5. I read an ARC of this book and enjoyed it immensely. Walton did a great job creating an alternate world with fascinating characters. Highly recommended.

  6. First – this book is definitely going on my list – sounds awesome! That said …

    J Mirren beat me to the point, that medieval folks weren’t as goofy as we sometimes think. Remember, we mostly know them through later historians who had their own biases. Certainly they were superstitious, but look around our own society: can we seriously be “pointing the finger” at anyone else on that issue? ;-)

    Also, CS Lewis’ book “The Discarded Image” is very worthwhile in describing the “classical” view of the universe (which owed as much to Greco-Roman traditions as to the Bible, with a few Celtic and Germanic spices thrown in) and comparing it to modern scientific perspectives. Mainly he wanted to help his students understand what was meant by words like “the heavens” in older literature, but it’s thought-provoking in a wider sense as well.

    I’m excited about the concept of “quintessence,” which was new to me, even being having studied ancient & medieval history. I hope this will be the start of a series (please?)!

  7. I’m familiar with the quote

    And yet, to me,
    what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
    me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
    you seem to say so.

    Now I have more of an idea what Shakespeare was saying, many years after I first saw and studied Hamlet.

    This book goes on my ‘to read’ pile.

  8. It would kind of help if Walton spent some time trying to understand medieval science. Just some examples:

    1. The standard belief was that the earth was a round sphere, which was the standard scientific argument since at least the time of Plato and Aristotle (both of whom argue that the earth is a sphere). Not knowing that does not speak highly of Walton’s research on the subject.

    2. Copernicus did not receive much condemnation. In fact, he didn’t receive much attention whatsoever until years after his death. He remained in good standing as a clergyman and minor official within the theocratic state of the Prince-Bishopric of Warmia until his death at a very advanced age, for example.

    3. John Philoponus argued that the heavens changed (and theorized that stars could crumble) as early as the sixth century. People were well aware that features (mountains, rivers, etc.) on the earth changed – Aristotle discusses it explicitly.

    4. Experimentation – Walton can go look at the work of Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, Buridan, Nicholas Oresme, Thomas Bradwardine and many others.

  9. Thanks for saying what I was going to say, burritoboy. The book sounds really interesting, but I cringed at the claim that medieval people thought the world was flat. That was definitely not the widespread belief.

  10. Color me intrigued by this book. Adding to “To Read” list forthwith. Also, the idea of quintessence has been resurrected in modern-day cosmology, to some degree: relating to the nature of dark energy.

  11. That is some wonderful cover art. I look forward to finding out if the book lives up to it. Congratulations to Mr. Walton!

  12. @ JohnW

    Newton spent a large percentage of his life studying alchemy and the occult mysteries, and calculated the age of the world from reading the Bible.

    Indeed. Imagine all the silly preconceived notions our descendents will laugh at us for holding.

  13. I love the ideas, and between the big idea and some other works cited in the comments, I am filling up a good shopping list for books.

    Phlogiston wasn’t all that bad an idea, considering the difficulty people had with the masses of gasses. It took some doing to figure out oxygen later on. Sometimes we just lack the tools to know better – I rememebr my high school chemistry text avowing that atoms were much too small to be observed directly, and now we have scanning tunneling microscopy images that can show relatively small atoms like carbon and how they are interconnected.

  14. I’m making a note of Kekai Kotaki for future Hugo nomination purposes.

    Also, to those wincing at the “medieval people thought the world was flat” thing: note that Mr. Walton didn’t actually say that. He just adds “What if the Earth really was flat as well?” without attributing that belief to anyone in particular. I interpreted his explanation as meaning he started with a heliocentric cosmology and then thought it would be fun to combine that with a flat Earth.

    Having read the book, it is indeed lots of fun, though not really the seafaring action-adventure novel the cover suggests.

  15. The problem, Susan, is that to really do what Walton seems to want to do – which is a imaginative riff off the philosophic understanding of the time – is that Walton needs to understand the intellectual history extremely well. His hero, for instance, would have fluidly conversant with then-current interpretation of the natural philosophy of Aristotle. Walton does not show (from his interview, at least) that he understands the outlines of what Aristotlean natural philosophy tries to do, for example.