Between Rick And Morty, Star Trek: Discovery, and everyone joking that we’re living in the bad timeline, stories about multiverses are all the rage. But jumping from one to another may not be as fun as Rick and his portal gun make it seem. Exhibit A: Doors Of Sleep (paperback, Kindle), a multiverse sci-fi novel by Tim Pratt. In the following email interview, Pratt explains how things work in this parallel universe novel, what inspired and influenced it, as well as his two other new books: the sci-fi space opera novel The Fractured Void (paperback, Kindle) and the sci-fi space opera novella collection The Alien Stars (paperback, Kindle).
To begin, what is Doors Of Sleep about?
It’s about a man named Zax, who has a peculiar condition: Whenever he falls asleep, he wakes up in a different branch of the multiverse. Basically, he bounces through a series of strange parallel universes, never knowing what he’s going to discover the next time he opens his eyes. Sometimes he wakes up in post-scarcity technological utopias, sometimes in nightmarish worlds of predation and terror, sometimes in pristine wilderness, sometimes on abandoned space stations, and often in much more bizarre realities. If he finds a world he likes, he tries to stay up as long as possible (with chemical assistance when possible), and when he’s in a dangerous or terrible place, sedatives can take him away (if he has any).
Where did you get the idea for Doors Of Sleep, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
I love multiverse stories, and always have. Parallel universes, mirror worlds, “dark universes” — that stuff shows up in my work going way back, at least to my story “The Scent Of Copper Pennies,” which I wrote twenty years ago [and which appears in his collection Little Gods]. I love reading and watching alternate-world stories, too. Years ago I even thought about trying to edit an anthology of them — which is to say, I started jotting down a list of my favorite examples — but John Joseph Adams beat me to it with his book Other Worlds Than These; he included my story “Impossible Dreams” in that book, though, so all is forgiven.
The idea of someone traveling through the multiverse without a steering wheel isn’t original, either; Sliders is a pretty well-known example of that idea. One day I was thinking of Roger Zelazny’s character from the Wild Cards series, the Sleeper, who manifests a whole new body and superpower every time he falls asleep, and does amphetamines to stay awake when he’s in a body he likes. (I love randomness in fiction, too.) It occurred to me that it would be cool to combine those terrible problems, and the idea for Zax, the Sleeper Of Worlds, was born.
In thinking of how things would work — like how Zax can take people with him, but only if they’re unconscious when he falls asleep — did you come up with the rules beforehand and let them dictate the story or did you make them up as you went along?
I knew I wanted him to have companions, for a couple of reasons, and set the rules to make for maximum dramatic possibilities. For one thing, I like writing dialogue, and always enjoy a scene with two characters interacting over a scene where one character is thinking. For another, having companions makes Zax’s difficult life both better and worse. His life is terribly lonely, so having company helps…but the people he takes with him are always at risk of being lost. If Zax falls asleep without them — or gets hit in the head and loses consciousness — they’ll be left behind. Some of them also get sick of traveling and choose to stay in a world, which is a choice Zax can’t make.
So is Doors Of Sleep is a sci-fi novel or a fantasy tale?
Yeah, definitely leaning into science fiction rather than fantasy. Things that seem fantastic certainly happen, but they’re always ostensibly super-science-based rather than magical. It’s not what you’d call hard sci-fi though.
So aside from Roger Zelazny, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Doors Of Sleepbut not on anything else you’ve written?
Oh, sure, lots of great multiverse stuff. “DX” by Joe Haldeman, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, “Why I Left Harry’s All Night Hamburgers” by Lawrence Watt-Evans, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Changing Planes,” Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Onion,” Paul Melko’s The Walls Of The Universe and “Ten Sigmas,” Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Clive Barker’s Imajica, and on and on.
Alix Harrow’s Ten Thousand Doors Of January came out too late to be an influence, but it’s my kind of thing: magic doors and alternate worlds.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games?
I actually wasn’t a huge fan of Sliders (they didn’t have the budget to go to really weird worlds), but I did like Quantum Leap a lot as a kid, and my agent described this book as “Doctor Who combined with Quantum Leap” — that sense of being flung through the universe and trying to do some good wherever you land is certainly there. Rick And Morty also has the kind of bizarre multiverse I can get behind.
As for games, BioShock: Infinite does some great alternate-universe stuff, and there’s some nice alt-world stuff teased in Control as well.
Stories about multiverses are, for obvious reasons, not always one-and-done kind of things. Is Doors Of Sleepthe first book in a new series or a stand-alone story?
I wrote it to stand alone, but with an open enough ending that it could serve as a launchpad for ongoing adventures. My editor at Angry Robot liked that idea, and I just sold them a sequel called Prison Of Sleep.
The multiverse is big, so there could be more books beyond the sequel, but each one will tell a complete story that stands alone. All you’ll need to know is the basic premise — Zax, sleep, the multiverse — and those details would be recapitulated in each volume. My preference has always been for series work where each title stands alone, an approach that’s more common in crime and mystery series. That said, Book Two does get into some of the mysteries set up in Book One: Why Zax? How did he develop this strange ability? What’s the nature of the multiverse itself?
Now, along with Doors Of Sleep, you also recently published a sci-fi space opera novel called The Fractured Void. People can delve deeper into that novel in the previous interview we did about it [which you can read by clicking here], but just real quick, what is that story about?
That’s a space opera novel set in the world of the Twilight Imperium board game. Its about a roguish crew of aliens protecting a brilliant scientist (who is a terrible person) and helping him develop technology that could alter the balance of power in the galaxy. Other factions want to get their hands on that scientist and his tech, too. It’s got heists, jailbreaks, pursuits, reversals, jokes, banter, attempted murder, successful murder, kissing, and weird alien stuff galore.
The Fractured Void is not the first time you’ve written a story set in someone else’s universe. You previously wrote novels and stories connected to the Pathfinder role-playing game. How do you think writing stories with these kinds of restrictions influenced what you did in Doors Of Sleep?
Oh, it didn’t really. Writing a story in someone else’s playground has certain restrictions on form and content, but I still create my own characters, storylines, etc. The actual writing process isn’t that different, though the editorial process is (since I have to make sure work-for-hire stuff conforms to the strictures of whatever uniform I’m writing in).
On the flipside, how do you think writing stories in which you set the rules influences what you do in stories that are connected to something, like The Fractured Void?
I guess I’d say, when I do work-for-hire I’m always aware that I’m playing in someone else’s sandbox, but I look around and pick and choose the parts of it that I find most exciting, and most suited to my own talents and enthusiasm. Every novel is about telling a story within certain parameters, in terms of genre, tropes, form, viewpoint, etc. — it’s always about making choices. With work-for-hire, those choices are either dictated by someone else or made in collaboration with other creative people, while with original work, I make more of the decisions on my own (though of course my editors, agent, and trusted readers weigh in with their thoughts as well).
Along with Doors Of Sleep and The Fractured Void, you also have a collection of novellas called The Alien Stars coming out April 27, which is connected to your Axiom trilogy. What was that series about?
The Axiom series is set several hundred years in the future, and (mostly) concerns the crew of a ship called the White Raven who discover an ancient, slumbering alien species called the Axiom, who are immeasurably powerful and don’t like sharing the galaxy with other intelligent life.
And then what are the novellas in The Alien Stars about, and how do they each connect to the Axiom series in terms of both narrative and chronology?
The Alien Stars is set after the end of the Axiom trilogy, and highlights three characters who didn’t get enough time on center stage in the series: the augmented engineer Ashok, the alien Lantern, and an artificial intelligence called Shall. It’s pretty cool. I did a Kickstarter for the collection, and then my editor at Angry Robot asked if she could produce an edition. Angry Robot has never published a collection before, so I’m really pleased and honored.
Going back to Doors Of Sleep, it sounds like it could make for a cool movie or TV show. Do you think so as well?
I imagine it would be expensive to produce, since the setting changes so frequently, but it’s certainly a big-idea, high-concept premise I could see appealing to makers of audiovisual media. I’ve had a nibble or two already, but we’ll see if it turns into anything.
If something does happen, what format do you think would work best and who do you think they should cast as Zax?
Probably an ongoing series, to showcase the variety of universes that Zax visits.
As for who to play Zax, I don’t know. He’s pretty young, in his early twenties, so some awesome unknown actor would be great.
Finally, if someone enjoys Doors Of Sleep, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
There’s some multiverse stuff in the Marla Mason series, but it’s later in the series (book five, Broken Mirrors) before it really kicks off. The most multiverse-y standalone book in my bibliography is Briarpatch. It’s a little tricky to get your hands on unless you find it used somewhere (it came out a decade ago from a small press), but I have plans to release an eBook in an updated “author’s preferred edition,” maybe later this year.