Days of Atonement, Newly Duplicated Along the t Axis

by wjw on August 5, 2011



I’m pleased to report than Days of Atonement is now available as an ebook.   For Kindle, for Nook, and on Smashwords— which has it available in a multiplicity of formats, and whence it will eventually migrate to other platforms such as the Sony Reader and iBooks.

The price is a modest $4.99.  Surely a better bargain than that big summer blockbuster you have your eye on.

This is also the first book to be made available after my plea for crowdsourced material.  (Good work, everyone!)

Y’all enjoy.

Days of Atonement was one of those projects that I’d been thinking about for a long time before I wrote it, four or five years at least, and the thinking I did was mainly a process of exclusion.  Originally I was going to make my protagonist a cop on a dying industrial planet, but then I realized that the extraterrestrial setting wasn’t necessary at all, because there was plenty of dying industry all over the United States, and I could set my story there without a lot of unnecessary science fiction window-dressing.

Though the book remains science fiction (because it has a science fiction problem at its core) the lack of window-dressing— which is to say science fiction elements introduced for their own sake, like rockets and ray guns—  became a problem later on, apparently.

In the meantime, I was very happy with my decision, for a couple of reasons.  I’d been wanting to write a book about New Mexico for a long time, and this was my chance.   I figured it would be my only chance, so I put in everything I find interesting about the state.

Second, the fact that the book was set in a recognizable near-future and did not feature stuff like rocket ships and ray guns said breakout novel to me.  This, I figured, was my chance to cross over to the larger general readership, get reviewed in the front section of America’s finer literary reviews, and maybe pull in some decent money for a change.

New Mexico, it has to be said, is a pretty damn weird place.  William Gibson famously remarked that the future is unevenly distributed, and in New Mexico it’s more unevenly distributed than practically anywhere else.   Much of the state is poor, the educational system has been a wreck more or less forever, and the politics are Third World.  20% of the population lives below the poverty line.  Much of the land is good only for grazing cattle, so that’s what it’s used for.  Extractive industries dominate the economy, along with the federal government.  (We get $1.50 back for every $1.00 we pay in taxes, so all the politicians yakking about cutting the budget just give me a headache.  They’re making me and my neighbors poorer.)

Nearly half the population speaks Spanish— and not necessarily Mexican Spanish either, but old Spanish dialects dating from the 16th-18th Centuries.  Linguists regularly visit the northern part of the state to find out how people talked in Spain centuries ago.

We also have the third-highest percentage of American Indians of the fifty states.  Indian reservations are scattered throughout the state, the largest being the huge Navajo reservation.   (Navajos make up something like half the native population of the U.S.)

(When I drove Nancy Kress north to Taos, she was on the phone part of the time describing her location.  “We’re leaving the Sandia Reservation and going onto the Santa Ana Reservation!”  “We’re leaving the Tesuque Reservation and entering the Nambe Reservation!”)

One of our Twentieth Century governors, Lonesome Dave Cargo (so called because he was a liberal Republican), famously claimed that he’d “dragged New Mexico kicking and screaming into the 19th Century.”)

But while much of the state gets left in the dust, the fact is that the future is happening here as fast as anywhere.  When I was researching Days of Atonement, I saw the world’s first parallel computer at Sandia Labs in Albuquerque.  We’ve got Los Alamos labs, we’ve got lots of military, and New Mexico Tech used Homeland Security money to buy an entire town, now used for anti-terror training.   (Playas, if you want to know.  Used to be owned by Phelps Dodge.)

And religion is kinda strange here.  We’re home to the Penitente Brotherhood, an order of flagellants who used to nail one of their members to a cross on Easter.   Some towns were founded by Mormons, which were intended as waystations in the event that Brigham Young and his folks had to evacuate Utah and take up residence across the border in Chihuahua.  Members of the Duke of Alba Society— a Catholic outfit named after a noted burner of Protestants— were supposedly conducting military maneuvers in isolated parts of the state, intending to conquer Central America in order to create a state in which the Pope could rule as king.

And we have lots of crypto-Jews, who have been hiding from the Inquisition since the 16th Century.  (Supposedly at least some of the Penitente communities accept the crypto-Jews, and perform Jewish ceremonies on certain occasions.  Deponent knoweth not, however.)

Plus there’s the Roswell UFO and the Socorro UFO and all the UFOs that noted looney scientist Wilhelm Reich supposedly chatted with all those years ago.  Which I file under the category of “religion,” though others may disagree.

But anyway, it all ended up in Days of Atonement one way or another. And my experience writing SF came in handy in describing New Mexico to an audience unfamiliar with the state— I just described it as if it were another planet.  (Which it pretty much is.)

Loren Hawn is chief of police in a dying copper-mining town in the southwest part of the state.  It could be Silver City, it could be Bisbee, it could be Playas before Homeland Security took over.   The pit has closed, and the town’s only hope is the secretive laboratory on the town’s outskirts.

Loren is basically a 19th Century lawman, right out of the tradition of Elfego Baca or Pat Garrett or Dave Allison or any of the local legends.  For all that he’s a part of a corrupt political machine (the fact of which he reluctantly accepts), he has an absolute idea of right and wrong, one that’s reinforced by his rather fringy church, which is going through an arduous seven-day purge of sin.

A murder with its obvious origins in the high-tech, semi-secret lab puts Loren on a direct collision course with Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle, just as the lab’s linear accelerators are ramping up to their highest energies.  What happens when a man of absolute conviction meets quantum uncertainty in a high-energy collision of space, time, matter, and a whole lot of bullets?

I’d tell you, but I’d have to write a book.

Days of Atonement was published twenty years ago.  So what happened to my hopes of crossover success?  I believe fuck-all describes the reality best.

For one thing, my publisher sabotaged any hope of finding a mainstream audience by giving my book the most hideous, gaudy, ghastly, kitschy science fiction cover of the year.  The dominant colors were bilious green and faded orange, which are just as awful together as you’d imagine.  (I’d link to it, but I can’t seem to find a picture anywhere.  It’s so ghastly that the entire Internet has rejected it!)

The cover has a ray cannon, it’s got scientists in lab coats, it’s got wooden poses.  It’s designed to send mainstream audiences screaming in desperate flight from the shelves.

This was my first experience of the desperate conservatism of science fiction publishing.   American publishers seem to be far more concerned with maintaining the audience that already exists than in expanding new readers.   The traditional audience is getting old and dying, but God forbid you should reach out to someone new.   Hence a cover that says HERE’S SOME INCREDIBLY CHEESY SCIENCE FICTION JUST LIKE YOU’VE ALWAYS LOVED!

I was hoping to get a new cover for the mass market paperback, but then I was told that no less a person than the publisher himself had gone into the sanctum of the art director, got himself the old cover, some scissors, and a pot of paste, and produced a brand new cover design using components of the old art.

Here’s what he came up with.  It’s still got that winning combination of bilious green and faded orange, and it’s still got the laser cannon, but believe it or not, it’s about 200% less hideous than the hardback.

I was screwed.   I could maybe argue my editor into a new cover, but I couldn’t argue the publisher out of a cover he’d put together with his very own scissors and paste pot.

Now here’s the cover it could have had. Not brilliant, perhaps, but at least it wouldn’t have sent people screaming.

On a visit to Arizona, Mike Stackpole took me to a firing range where we could enjoy automatic weapons, and I used the cover as a target and riddled it with an UZI.  I showed it to my editor.  I don’t think she was moved.

It wasn’t long before my editor told me that sales of Days of Atonement were very disappointing.  This was by way of saying, “You got away with it once, but don’t ever write anything like that ever again, ever, ever.  Write something we can put a ray cannon on.”

I imagine I said something like, “Maybe the sales suck because it has the most hideous cover since, well, evar.”  But that wasn’t her point.

(Nor was it even remotely true.  Years later, when I got my royalty statements, I found out that DoA had sold about as well as the previous book, and about as well as the book that followed.  I may have plateau’d, but I wasn’t regressing.)

The upshot is that loyal Walter Jon Williams readers— and God bless you, every one— found the book, but (as with most of my projects) my wider, perhaps completely virtual, audience never located it.

So now it’s out there, in virtual electronic realms, looking for its Long Tail.  May it find a home.

Michael_gr August 5, 2011 at 8:11 am

I can’t say which of your novels is my “absolute favorite” but Days of Atonement is up there at the top. I believe Loren Han to be one of the best-realized deeply flawed / completely messed-up characters I’ve ever seen in literature, up there with the likes of Raskolnikov, or (song of ice and fire being fresh in my mind) Jaime Lannister.
I LOVED the New-Mexico descriptions. Especially the politics and religion.
I’ll spread the word about this to everyone I know who has an e-reader.

grs1961 August 5, 2011 at 12:31 pm

That German cover looks a *lot* like a cover from a PB of “Police Your Planet” sold here in Oz back in the 70’s (can’t find an image, and my copy is in a box under a box behind a box …), and is somewhat reminiscent of a PB cover for the mid-80’s “CORP*S*E* (…

Ken Thomas August 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm

I really hope that people who discovered your work after DoA will give it a shot now that it’s available. I think it’s one of your better books, with one of your best characters (maybe two), and oddly enough, the older I get the more I seem to enjoy it.

Of course, I grew up in a coal mining town in WV, so I might like it so much simply because I recognize so much of it.

Scotoma August 5, 2011 at 1:52 pm

This is one of the few science fiction books where I would have liked to see all the SF elements be expunged. I don’t regret having read it, the character work is truly some of your best, but overall I can’t really say I liked it. I had a similar reaction to Glen Cook’s “A Matter of Time”, which also has one of the best character work of his career, but which results in a book that feels decidedly average and one that could have been much better without any SF content.

Brian Renninger August 5, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Oh no. The intertubes has lots of the original cover. Here’s one:

I can’t say I ever liked the cover but, it still holds fond memories for me. I can still remember the excitement my 23 year old self had seeing it on the spinner rack (Ooooo, a new Williams!)

Brian R.

Brian Renninger August 5, 2011 at 3:22 pm

Oh, I thought you were talking about the paperback. Sadly I never new there was a hardback.

But, abebooks has the cover.

Brian R.

TCWriter August 5, 2011 at 8:58 pm

OK, I bought a copy for my Nook (I’d have been quicker about it if it had a laser cannon on the cover), and expect it had something do with the bumper sticker on my car: Support Your Local Cranky Sci-Fi Writer.

Good luck with the backlist.

wjw August 6, 2011 at 2:14 am

Brian, that’s the cover of the paperback. The hardback cover was far more hideous.

TCW, I am indeed a cranky sci-fi writer. Support me!

Patricia Mathews August 6, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Went on my Kindle yesterday. But then, a few years ago, when I realized I’d lost my original print copy (let it out of my hands, probably) I went to the trouble of reacquiring it and having Walter sign it, so I’m prejudiced.

I’m sending this link to Jean Lamb in Oregon (high desert Oregon – almost as weird) in hopes that she’ll download it too.

Mat E. August 8, 2011 at 5:49 am

Mr. Williams,
I found a typo in the Kindle edition of “Days of Attonement.”
When Patience and Hawn are talking after Jerrigan’s initial interview, Hawn answers “25 decades after the war” when asked about his time in Korea. I checked my old tattered paperback for the original passage. The physical text says “25 years after…”
I’m enjoying your digital releases very much, finally replacing said worn paperbacks 😉

wjw August 8, 2011 at 6:06 am

Twenty-five decades? It’s no longer near-future, is it?

I’ll have to fix that.

Clyde August 9, 2011 at 2:38 am

OK. Just bought it. Days of Atonement goes into my overly large to-read stack right after Implied Spaces.
As for the cover, yours is indeed much better than the one Tor came up with. But still … I donno, it seems a little off. Out of balance? Unfocused? Perhaps some investment with a professional artist might help move your backlist books. This guy seems reasonable (and he makes good covers for J. A. Konrath and others).
Just a suggestion. Do think about it.
Anyway, I am looking forward to further backlist WJW releases. Especially I would like to reread Knight Moves and Aristoi, both of which disappeared from my bookshelves via the great book-lending society years ago.
Special request! — Is there any chance you will be republishing (self-republishing?) the Privateers and Gentlemen series? Cannot get those books anywhere.

wjw August 9, 2011 at 2:51 am

I’ll be getting up all my backlist eventually, but it’s a process both longer than I’d like and more tedious than I’d like.

Being a publisher is a lot of work.

I’ll get the Privateers & Gentlemen books up as well, but they’ll probably be last to find their way online. Demand does not seem vast.

Dave Bishop August 11, 2011 at 8:40 am

I’ve just found my copy of the British pb edition of this book which was published by Grafton (an imprint of Harper Collins). The cover depicts a man, in a ‘cruciform’ pose and with his shirt ripped off, being transfixed by ‘death rays’. Certainly the colours are less lurid than the US editions but aesthetically it probably still leaves a lot to be desired (?)
Mind you the cover didn’t put me off reading it and it remains one of my favourites among your works.

wjw August 12, 2011 at 5:10 am

I rather liked that UK cover. Certainly it was vastly improved over the US one, and it got the religulous elements in the design.

TC August 12, 2011 at 8:06 pm

I’m from Albuquerque, and my family is historically from Gallup. I loved this book the first time I read it. I’m glad it’s out on the nook so I can re-read it.

DensityDuck August 15, 2011 at 9:26 pm

I looked at that cover and immediately broke out in giggles. “AAAAHHH! Why are you shooting lasers at my nuts?!”

Joe Stroller August 17, 2011 at 1:05 am

I have a copy of the hideous original hardback. I recognise it immediately from your description.

Let me know if you want a scan or something of the cover.

I’d be really interested in what you intended with the cop protagonist in this book. It’s like he wants to be a good guy and do the right thing, but something about his value system is messed up and he’s basically an asshole. Was that the intent? Ultimately, from a mainstream p-o-v the book seems like a whodunnit that concludes being solved with magic, but it’s also hard to enjoy a book in which the lead character is so unlikable.

wjw August 17, 2011 at 2:41 am

What I aimed for with Loren was a typical 19th Century Western lawman. Strong values that don’t allow for ambiguity, unafraid of violence, protective of family and community. I then threw the character kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

I don’t set out to make all my characters likeable, but I try to make them understandable, and if possible fascinating. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

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