The Big Idea: Tim Pratt

For Doors of Sleep, author Tim Pratt dreamed a little dream… and then another one, and another one, and another one after that. What does all that dreaming mean for the novel? Read on.


Doors of Sleep is probably the most elevator-pitchy, high-concept thing I’ve ever written. It’s a multiverse adventure, following the adventures of a character named Zax, who suffers from a peculiar malady: whenever he falls asleep, he wakes up in a new reality. Sometimes he opens his eyes in nice places—pastoral wonderlands, techno-utopian cityscapes, orbital habitats full of amiable posthumans—but other times… he ends up in worlds that are rather less nice. 

He can’t control where he ends up. He can’t even control how long he stays, except through the use of stimulants and sedatives. He can’t go home. He can take people with him, if they go to sleep in his arms when he transitions, but they inevitably get separated, or simply choose to stay behind when they find a world they like. (When I told my agent about it she said “It’s like Doctor Who combined with Quantum Leap,” and yeah, that’s a pretty good comparison really.) 

Zax isn’t from our world. He’s from a slightly more technologically advanced reality, where he trained to be a harmonizer, a sort of social worker devoted to helping people thrive personally while also contributing to the whole of society. (That means I couldn’t solve plot problems with creative violence, which was a nice challenge.) Of course, the nature of his condition means he’s never part of any society, and though he tries to help where he can, he never knows if his actions have had any lasting impact or unintended consequences. (“How do I know who my protagonist should be?” new writers sometimes ask. “Whoever would suffer the most” is one reasonable answer.)

When I conceived of the book and put together a proposal, I worked out a plot and supporting characters and complications and reversals and betrayals and arcs and all that, but there was one part of the book I deliberately declined to prepare in advance (apart from a couple of key scenes): the different worlds.

I’m one of those hybrid writers, not quite pantser and not quite plotter. I usually know the broad plot strokes and key emotional beats of a novel before I start writing it, but I leave myself room to improvise, surprise myself, and figure out exactly how I get from a problem to the solution. If I meticulously planned every scene, the writing process would lose much of its sparkle for me. (I’ve compared writing a novel based on a super-detailed outline to chewing gum that somebody else has already chewed. Which is disgusting. I’m sorry. But there you go.) The parts I don’t plan are the parts where the magic of inspiration happens.

The best part of writing Doors of Sleep involved exactly that magic: it’s the dozens of worlds I got to invent. Some of them I get to explore for many pages, and others are depicted in just a line or two, but every world is meant to be a spectacle or a revelation. 

I wanted the alternate worlds in this book to be really weird. While I enjoy parallel-universe stories where small tweaks make big changes–some historical figure chokes on a fish bone instead of going to a meeting and the fate of nations shift —I wanted to do something way more widescreen and over-the-top with this book. I knew much of the joy, for me, would come in discovering those worlds at the same time Zax did. 

Often, if I wrote a scene where Zax fell asleep, I wouldn’t know exactly what kind of world he would wake up in until I started writing it—usually there were lots of possibilities that could serve the needs of the plot–and I had so much fun inventing wildly bizarre landscapes, along with places that seem more mundane, until some twist reveals itself. 

There’s a world where fast-moving glaciers trapped technological wonders in fields of ice, just waiting for someone to come along and chip them out; where living skeletons with onyx eyes and hydraulic muscles worship at fountains of blood (laced with anticoagulants, of course); where people live in literal bubble-habitats so they’ll only encounter people who agree with them on social, philosophical, and political issues. There’s one inspired by J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World, where a shimmering armor has crept across everything; another where giants covered in moss and lichen amble through slow-motion wars (in low gravity, because otherwise, how could they get so big?); one where “gentleperson naturalists” in airships made of forcefields study the local flora and fauna, willfully ignorant of the sapience of their subjects. There’s a grim plain where basalt pyramids hold sleeping horrors; a pleasant little city where blood is a form of currency; the wrecked spacecraft of a sect who went searching for the homeworld of God. 

And more, and more, and more: space stations, planets, underground cities; worlds close enough to Zax’s lost home to break his heart, and others so strange he can barely comprehend them; places where he makes friends, and, almost always, loses them. Getting to invents scores of imaginary worlds was the thrill of this book (and why I’m eager to write another in this universe). What makes it a good novel (I hope!) is the characters who inhabit those worlds, and the way they see them, and the way the changing worlds change them

Doors of Sleep: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

7 Comments on “The Big Idea: Tim Pratt”

  1. I am starting to think a large part of my reading list for 2021 is just going to be “all the books from Whatever’s Big Idea category”.

    I am ok with this.

  2. It sounds very interesting and I hope the protagonist isn’t as traumatized as I imagine he should be.

  3. I can’t help but think that’d be a short trip to insanity for the protagonist. Falling asleep would be terrifying for him after a while. Interesting idea, though.

  4. I really enjoyed the Axiom trilogy (The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, The Forbidden Stars) and will probably pick this up.

  5. Read the preview an hour ago, found a place that would sell e-books to the UK, paid, now feeling relief at Minna and Zaxony’s transition from World 1005. In a Britain that I fondly hope is a rock-bottom–probability offshoot, it’s good to find some universes that make sense.

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