Being Aristoi

by wjw on April 11, 2012

When I wrote Aristoi I damn near had to teach myself to write all over again.  The book was just that different.

When I started writing science fiction, I believe in late 1983, I came up with a list of what I wanted to do.  Because I’d come from a fairly limited branch of historical fiction— naval action-adventure, where every plot concerned about 200 males on a ship— I wanted to expand in as many directions as possible.

So here is my list:

  • The future where everything went right.  (This became my novel Knight Moves.)

  • The future where everything went wrong.  (Hardwired)

  • A mystery/thriller (Voice of the Whirlwind)

  • A first-contact novel (Angel Station)

  • A comedy (The Crown Jewels)

  • A hard-boiled mystery (Days of Atonement)

In an extremely creative period of maybe three of four months in 1983, I conceived of and at least lightly plotted each of these works.  Which, as I wrote them, led to a certain amount of anxiety.  I was coming to the end of my list.  What would I write next?  What if I’d burned myself out creatively back in 1984?

I began making another list, this one of ideas and concepts that I’d never written about before.  And then I jammed them all together in one incredibly detailed piece of worldbuilding.

One book was a primary influence in the worldbuilding:  Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, which offered the hypothesis that, following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the world was going to consist of parliamentary social democracies— social democracies all the way down, as it were.

Snort, I snorted.  I can think of all sorts of ways that autocracies will not only survive, but thrive.  So I decided to write about a society in which the rulers were more absolute even than Louis XIV.  And it was a good thing.

I wanted to write about nanotechnology, which I had only touched on in previous works.  I wanted to write about virtual reality in a more comprehensive way than I’d seen in the past.  I wanted to write about ideas about the mind/body interface that I’d developed through studying martial arts, and how it might be altered through implant wetware.   And I wanted to write about multiple personalities.

Now I had met a couple people who suffered from what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder (a term no longer in use).  And I began to realize that it’s not just Walt Whitman who contains multitudes, we all have different personalities and voices in our heads.  When I was with my friends, my personality was different than when I was with my parents, which was different from my personality in the karate school.  The personalities that I adopt in this blog, and when speaking on panels at science fiction conventions, are to a degree constructs.  The difference between me and someone with MPD is that I have someone in charge.  I have a governing me who decides which personality to employ in any given situation.  What’s happening in the head of someone with MPD is something more akin to anarchy.

I realized that all these voices are, to a great extent, useful— at least so long as someone’s in charge— and that if you empowered these personalities, you could multitask like a sonofabitch.

I worked out the world of Aristoi in immense detail while I was writing books like Angel Station and Days of Atonement.  Because it was an aristocratic society, with an elite in charge, the world of the Aristoi would share features with other conservative societies.  There would be an appeal to tradition and to the past.  Hence the characters are always quoting classical poetry or thinkers of the past in order to buttress their arguments.   They use classical languages, like ancient Greek (because I’d studied Greek) and Chinese (because it’s the oldest surviving culture around, and I’m very interested in China.)

There would be a fairly rigid social order, with the Aristoi (“the Best”) on top, in the middle the Therápontes (“Servants”— which is also what “Samurai” means, by the way), and the Demos— the People— at the bottom of the pyramid.

I realized that the only way to construct such a radically different society would be in reaction to severe trauma— in this case, the destruction of Earth by runaway technology.  Society has developed technology so dangerous that only a small class of people can be allowed to wield it.

But how do you choose such people?  A problem with conservative societies throughout history is how they pass on wealth and power— through heredity.  As Charlie Stross recently remarked on his blog, a society ruled by a monarch has a single point of failure.  If you inherit the job and you’re not up to it, or if you’re simply evil, then your society has little recourse.   They can overthrow you and replace you with another king, but who’s to say that king is any better?  Or that his offspring will be?

So in Aristoi, social barriers are not absolute— it’s a aristocratic meritocracy, in which absolute rulers are chosen through a series of examinations, like mandarins in Confucian China.  Through application, genius, talent, and drive, a member of the Demos can become an Aristos.

What are these exams like?  I elided over them for the most part, but I assumed that much of the exams would consists of psychological profiling to make certain that any candidates are stable enough to be trusted with absolute power.

Born in tragedy, the Aristoi strive above all to create a society that’s safe.  There’s no war, there’s no poverty (unless it’s self-inflicted), there’s very little violence.   All children are planned, wanted, and loved.  Education is there to take you as far as you care to go.  Life extension technology is available that will allow people to live for hundreds of years.  Though each Ariste is absolute within her own domaine, the borders are porous enough that people can leave if their lives become too oppressive. You don’t want to run a domaine in which all the smart, talented people are leaving.  (Your peers will smirk and write satires, and you can’t have that.)

Having worked out my world in some detail, I then set myself to figuring out my point-of-view character.  He would be an Aristos, a sort of self-made prince.  I made him aesthetic, because that would enable him to experience his own world in all its rich detail.  I gave him lots of different and contrasting voices in his head, some of whom were female and lusted after men.  (I have no personal experience with bisexuality, but I figured what the hell, I have a good imagination.)

So what does being an Aristos do to you once you’re elevated to that office?  The exams have supposedly ensured that you’re not going to break down into a crazed, paranoid mess, or charge off to eliminate all gingers from the gene pool; but on the other hand you still wield absolute power, and everyone around you is always agreeing with you.  So you’re going to be a little bit smug, and you’re probably going to have lots of sex with pretty much anyone you want.

(Readers who object to Gabriel on the grounds that he’s conceited have never asked themselves what they would be like if they’d never met an obstacle they couldn’t overcome, a test they couldn’t pass, or a person they couldn’t sleep with.)

Frequent readers of this blog may note that Aristoi was created the wrong way ’round.  In the past, my books each started with a character I wanted to write about, and I built the world and the plot around that character.  Now, I created the world first, and then the character.  But what of the plot?

Plot stopped me for a long time.  I couldn’t think of a story that would— that could— take place in this dazzling world.  Things seemed too stable, too perfect.  Whatever crisis arose, the Aristoi would simply deal with it.

The answer came while I was sitting on a panel at a science fiction convention.  I sat next to Gene Wolfe; and while he was talking, the entire plot of Aristoi unfolded inside my head.

What was Gene talking about?  I have no idea.  It had nothing to do with plots or my novel, of that I’m sure. I believe it was a panel on workshops.

Just sitting within the aura of one of our field’s authentic geniuses seems to have done the trick.  (Thanks, Gene!)

So I was able to put a proposal together, and sell it to Tor.  And then I wrote it.

I decided that I was really going to pull out all the stops.  I was going to make every scene a tour-de-force.  I was going to show that, by Jove,  I belonged in this goddam field, and that I belonged at the top of it.

Reading Aristoi now for the first time since I sent in page proofs in 1991, what strikes me the most is its absolutely demented ambition.  This ambition shows up even in the typography, where I sometimes broke the narrative into two columns, the first describing the action, and the second describing a conversation among the voices in Gabriel’s head.

(This, by the way, is a fairly literal description of the sorts of dialogs that go on in my own head.  When I’m engaged in mock and semi-mock combat at my kenpo school, I have whole parliaments in my head chattering about what to do next, and what to watch out for, and how to resolve tactical problems.  Those scenes in Aristoi aren’t fanciful at all.)

I just loved writing this book.  It just poured onto the page in all its operatic detail.

What I ended up writing was something that is now called New Space Opera.  Except that I’m not British, so I’m not allowed to write New Space Opera, so we have to find another name for it.

Aristoi.  A garden of unearthly delights, insane ambition, and absolute power.  Now available as an ebook for Kindle, Nook, and via Smashwords.

Not Todd April 11, 2012 at 6:15 am

The phrase “space opera” is not what comes to my mind when I read “Aristoi”. “The Praxis”, sure, but even that is many levels above whatever you see shelves and shelves of at the bookstore with Jedis and Klingons on the cover.

“Aristoi” is the most challenging and most rewarding of your books.

Michael Mock April 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Ye gods, I loved this book. I picked it up in hardback years ago, and it’s sitting on my shelf with all sorts of little annotated bookmarks tucked into it. (I’ve never been comfortable writing in the margins; I don’t know why.)

DensityDuck April 11, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Well, you can get away with a lot when you set your story in a post-scarcity society that has rapid interstellar travel and real-time interstellar communication.


“Society has developed technology so dangerous that only a small class of people can be allowed to wield it. But how do you choose such people?…in Aristoi, social barriers are not absolute— it’s a aristocratic meritocracy, in which absolute rulers are chosen through a series of examinations, like mandarins in Confucian China. Through application, genius, talent, and drive, a member of the Demos can become an Aristos.
What are these exams like? I elided over them for the most part, but I assumed that much of the exams would consists of psychological profiling to make certain that any candidates are stable enough to be trusted with absolute power.”

Sort of like how, after a short period of somewhat arduous service and risk–nothing more than light workout to our caveman ancestors–a candidate in Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” could become a citizen and wield the dangerous power of voting.

James April 12, 2012 at 3:13 am

Read it while working miles from anywhere in Dec 1992. Thought it was a pure cyberpunk novel and loved every bit. Wonderfully original.

Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) April 12, 2012 at 5:54 am

When I read “Aristoi” I was studying VR technology as a sideline to my regular day job, and I was fascinated by the way you’d thought it through and then tied it in with other technologies like nanotechnology on the assumption that all of them would be mature. It was a whole lot of fun to read, too, in fact I thought the typography tricks were part of the charm.

One thing I’ve wanted to ask you since I read it: the multiple personality idea is not used very often in SF, and when it is it’s devilishly hard to fit it into the flow of the story while still making sure that the reader gets the sense of it being different from just having a conversation going on between two people in the same skull. One of the few other successful examples I know of is Wyman Guin’s “Beyond Bedlam” from the early ’50s (though he handled it differently: his characters’ personalities couldn’t talk directly to each other). Had you read that before writing Aristoi?

Paul Weimer (@princejvstin) April 12, 2012 at 1:35 pm

It’s been too long since I read Aristoi…I need to correct that. And now I can!

Brian Renninger April 13, 2012 at 3:25 am

As a fan since reading Panzerboy in Asimov’s, I ordered Aristoi from my local bookstore during my first year in college in Fairbanks, Alaska. I walked a mile and half a -40F weather over 12 foot snowdrifts to the store; picked it up and walked back to the low budget hotel where I was staying.

The hotels furnace couldn’t keep up with the cold weather and the room was always at about 45F and sometimes colder. We couldn’t keep electric heaters in the rooms for fear of fire. I could keep milk frozen on my windowsill. There were many days were I never saw the sun.

As I read Aristoi, I felt warm and bathed in light.

wjw April 13, 2012 at 6:34 am

Thank you, Brian, you made my day.

Bruce, I’ve never heard of “Beyond Bedlam.” Or Wyman Guin, for that matter. (No one to blame for my ignorance beyond myself, as I now see it’s a widely-anthologized story.)

Science fiction really is a perfect warehouse of ideas. Every so often I think I’ve come up with something really brilliant, and discover that it was first articulated decades earlier. In this case, before I was even born.

Rick wasserman April 16, 2012 at 4:25 am

Just passing through when this caught my eye…
Actually I saw a thing about you being toastmaster at Nebula which is why I was passing through….
…and so on, on back the the big bang.

Yeah, I still have copies of those early works, Hardwired was my first, it got me hooked and I had to get them all. I even have a copy of Ambassador of Progress tucked away somewhere.
Ah, happy memories stored in their wood pulp hard drives for easy access

…and Frankensteins, just for the Hardwired…. continuation.
Thanks for that, it came at a particularly interesting point in my life.

Aristoi made my head hurt as I tried to read the two columns of text at the same time, but it was worth it and really that is the only way to actually feel the experience in my mind as they are both about events that are happening at the same time and what transpired in one may be separate or relate in a key way to what is in the other.

My head works like that too, though it gets distracting when they sing parody songs while you are trying to have a conversation with someone.

You must have had a hell of a time convincing the publisher to do it, but I suppose it is not so different the formats of the original multicolor version of the Never Ending Story or the 48 Laws of power by Robert Greene.

I miss Drake though

Larry Lennhoff April 19, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Aristoi was the book that I bought and passed around, not to everyone, but to the few select special friends to whom I could say “You want to know how I think – not what I think but how? Then look at the characters in this book and reduce it by an order of magnitude. This is how I would think if I were also a super genius.” I got some very good discussions and insights out of the ensuing discussions, and I’m pleased all these years later to be able to thank you for it.

Pat Mathews April 28, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Question, Walter – did you use a reference book on body language when you wrote Aristoi, and is it easily available? Because I want a copy for my own use!

wjw April 28, 2012 at 11:26 pm

I mainly used my martial arts training, supplemented by a glimpse I got of a book on modern dance written by Ruth St. Denis or some other member of the Denishawn Dance Company, circa 1910. But I never saw the whole manual, and I can’t remember where I found it.

Maggie September 10, 2012 at 5:42 am

This is the only book of yours that I have read. That being said, I read it about 5 or 6 years ago, borrowed from the library, and upon returning it promptly forgot the title of the book. Please don’t misunderstand, I didn’t by any means forget about your story. In fact, I am quite enamored with the story, and particularly with the world the story is set in. I simply couldn’t remember the title of the book. I have been trying to re-find this book ever since. I looked in the library again, never finding it (it was fantastic, so i’m not surprised that it was checked out when i was looking) I searched the shelves of bookstores, hoping to see a cover, or randomly read a summary, which would lead me back to this book. I have even, over the years, tried to ask other sci-fi readers about this book (you would not believe the strange looks I received when I tried desperately to describe your story to people who had not read it). Today, in a half-hearted attempt to find something I’d long resigned myself to never rediscover, I spent about half an hour plugging in a multitude of now half remembered details of this book into Google, when finally I got a link to this page. As I read through the article, I almost jumped for joy as I became more and more convinced that THIS was the book I’ve searched years for.

All this was simply to tell you how much this book affected me, to thank you for a fascinating story, and to tell you that tomorrow, after class, I’m going out to buy (so I never again have to go through this painful multi-year journey) Aristoi. I will so enjoy the feeling of smugness when the people I’ve described this story to finally read it, and realize that when I concluded my description with, “I know I sound crazy, but it really is terrific” I was so incredibly right.

wjw September 10, 2012 at 9:12 pm

Maggie, I’m deeply flattered to hear that I wrote a book so memorable.

I hope you enjoy re-reading Aristoi, and maybe find that a few of my other books may be to your taste.

John April 24, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Hello, Mr Williams. I am a fan of yours in the Philippines, and I count myself lucky to have read your wonderful novel Aristoi. I own two copies of it, one hardbound and one paperback.

Aristoi is a delicious literary meal, very satisfying in multiple ways. I count it as one of my top three favorite single (as opposed to part of a series) science fiction novels of all time. The other two are Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge and Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling.

I also feel fortunate to have read and own copies of Metropolitan and City on Fire.

Thank you for writing Aristoi. I believe I have read it over a dozen times since I acquired my first copy of it. I still re-read it about once a year.

Take care. 🙂

wjw April 24, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Thanks, John. You really made my day.

John April 26, 2013 at 2:36 am

You’re very welcome, Mr Williams. I like making other people happier.

I have to admit, it’s a real thrill to reach out to a world-renowned SF author.

In case it matters, I own other of your books, but the ones I read over and over again are Aristoi, Metropolitan and City on Fire.

Eddie June 23, 2014 at 8:44 pm

I first read (well – started to read) Aristoi shortly after it was published, probably spring 1993 at the latest. I read a few chapters and then, resenting the fact that it was not Hardwired II, declined to read any further (I was young).

I no longer remember when or why I gave it another try, but I do know that by early 1996 I’d read it several times and loved it, found it very invigorating and inspirational. I’ve read it countless times since.

Now it is twenty years later, more-or-less, and I have realized I am never going to be able to read all of the books I want to. Consequently, I am trying to implement Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50, to abandon books that don’t appeal to me after a small number of pages. However, every time I am on the verge of doing so, I remember that if I had done similarly years ago I’d never have read Aristoi, and cannot bring myself to.

Pim August 3, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Thank you for the ambitiousness of this work. I sometimes obsess over scenes in it.
I am an active user of Virtual World Sandboxes. I have several accounts in one world that let me entertain differing sides of myself. Aristoi’s use of Multiple personality with Virtual Reality struck home inside me. To watch the main character direct his own personalities like servants and “multitask like a sonofabitch” was wonderful.

Imarii Morningstarre February 23, 2015 at 7:53 pm

I was introduced to Aristoi by a friend and healer after a personal trauma splintered off my ‘voices’ into unique personalities. I had always said; “one more childhood trauma, and I would be a full split.” I had no idea that I could experience that trauma as an adult, and the result was catastrophic… at first.

Already experiencing the advanced psychosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, I was naturally driven to my care team (medical professionals, healers and friends) to ask for help getting the chaos under control.

What I didn’t expect is that my other selves would ‘overhear’ me as I asked for help getting everyone into the same room, so we could discuss things and decide what to do with my body and when. They all got together and unanimously voted to put me in charge.

It was during this process that I’d also read Aristoi, and it was a tremendous help! We liked… no… we LOVED the idea that having split personalities could be a strength instead of a weakness.

I’m a writer myself… currently in recovery from the original trauma that split us all off to begin with, as well as the subsequent traumas that resulted. I’m working on a story now that is one half autobiography and one half fictional healing journey. It was an idea I had when discussing my personal trust issues with my therapist. I know I need help with my recovery process, but I’m reluctant to invite anyone into my life right now. My avatar in the story is far braver than I, and I am able to vicariously draw strength from her interpersonal relationships as I write them for her. [isn’t having a vivid imagination great?]

My long term goal is to publish the story under creative commons, and make it open and public. I want to have it out there as an inspiration to others who may be struggling to recover from similar traumas.

I had the idea today that I wanted to begin self-identifying as an Ariste, and work that into my own narrative. This led me to researching whether or not this is something others are already doing (and perhaps I could find a new social group to interact with) and also led me here.

I would like to formally request permission to include my experience of reading Aristoi into my own narrative.

Your work has been highly influential in my healing process, and I would love to give credit where credit is due as I share that process with the world.

Thank you,

wjw February 24, 2015 at 1:42 am

Imarii, I’m deeply grateful that you were able to use one of my works in your healing process. You have permission to credit me with anything I deserve credit for, and I wish you all the best on your writing venture.

Christopher Koehler December 6, 2015 at 10:07 pm

I thought Aristoi was a fresh, brilliant concept when I encountered it in the mid 90s and I still do, which is probably why I keep checking in for news about a sequel. With Cpt Yuan et al still large, the novel’s begging to be written. Of course, it’s easy to write other people’s novels…

wjw December 7, 2015 at 12:40 am

I have the opening of the sequel, but I have no idea where it goes from there.

And right now I’ve got a lot of other things to write.

But I do think about what comes next.

The Shards December 25, 2015 at 1:55 am

Thank you once again for making us multiples real in our own way, and not homocidial villains or irreparably broken beings. Your work is an inspiration to us all (puns not intended).

wjw December 25, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Shards, I’m very happy to have been proved right about some things. Please have a happy and wildly diverse New Year!

The Shards December 26, 2015 at 4:46 pm

And you as well, Mr. Williams. Please give everyone at home our best.

Steve August 30, 2017 at 8:58 am

Aristoi is one of my favorite novels EVER, one of those books you re-read over and over again throughout your life, finding new holographic depths to it and interrelations with where you are in your own life’s journey. I own copies in paperback, hardcover, and now e-book. Although I’ve enjoyed many of your other works, Aristoi has the unique synthesis self-referenced in the meteoric rise of its title characters: Just the right mix of ideas, narrative, world-building, and characters that I keep wanting to visit. I hope that basking in the aura of some other creative helps to fire that notion for a sequel, as I’d love to read it one day!

Markus January 9, 2023 at 9:00 am

Just yesterday I re-read it. Has Gabriel ever found Yuan? Will we find out one day?

wjw January 9, 2023 at 5:40 pm

Markus, all is possible. I’ve had some ideas for sequels, but they’ve never cohered into a story I wanted to tell.

RB June 19, 2023 at 10:39 am

My list of owned books is not very large, having mostly relied on libraries when I was younger, and tending to stick to just a few large authors who I am confident in spending money on.

Somehow this book ended up in my very tiny purchased ebooks collection maybe 10 years back. However that happened, I am incredibly grateful it did, having just reread it again years later, which I don’t think I’ve ever done for a full novel (and I’ve read hundreds of great books over the last few decades).

This is just so well written, so intriguing as a series of questions of what if, and so fantastically open-minded as it thinks just a little bit more outside the box than most do (bisexual split personalities?), in a way which doesn’t fall flat on its face and instead is used directly in the plot.

I’m glad to see the idea of a sequel hasn’t completely left at this point, and can hold out hope. It seems that Gabriel might still have challenges in that he’s been slighted by an abusive parent, but hasn’t yet considered how much of their problematic behaviour he still exhibits himself (presumably he is still happy to use imprinted obedience gestures on others, despite the experience he went through on the receiving end of them). His talented partner who is reluctant to join their ranks seems to see something about the type of people selected to lead and the entire structure of their civilization designed and nurtured by their now enemy, the meglomaniac captain.

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