29 May 2008

Locus Magazine's Gary K. Wolfe reviews Walter Jon Williams

from Locus Magazine, May 2008

Implied Spaces, Walter Jon Williams (Night Shade 978-1-59780-125-6, $24.95, 266pp, hc) April 2008. Cover by Daniel Dos Santos.

Unlike most other genres and most mainstream fiction, SF has often worried about its ideas gaining currency out on the street, quite apart from their embodiment in stories. Every generation of SF has its accompanying supplementary readings of nonfiction works, from the science columns in the pulps to the future shock scenarios of the ’70s to more recent scout guides for the Singularity, and in each case the intent seems to be to extract from SF the most compelling and sexy ideas and repackage them for a broader audience (though in many cases I suspect that audience consists mostly of people who were already reading SF in the first place). Bear in mind that I’m not talking about SF as prediction here — it’s more like SF as lycopene, something that can be repackaged in apothecary form for those who don’t want to eat the tomatoes. This isn’t the whole of SF, of course, and if we were in the business of spinning literary theories we might characterize this as the didactic strain of the field. It may have gotten a lot more sophisticated than in the days of Gernsback’s little chalkboard lectures, but it’s never quite gone away.

But there’s always been a countertradition as well, which we might call the ludenic strain in SF. For every Asimov who was studiously concerned about the social implications of robotics, there was a Kuttner who seemed to feel that robots were just fun to write about. For every carefully considered Clarkean novel about space exploration, there was another looneytune space opera. And the same thing seems to be happening with the current boy-band of SF ideas, the Vingean Singularity. There’s no doubt it’s a cool idea with all sorts of real-world implications, but — as Walter Jon Williams demonstrates in his new novel Implied Spaces — there’s a playful aspect to it as well, and one that has more to do with the singularity as a function of story than about real-world technological tipping points. In other words, Williams is asking what good the singularity is purely as a literary device — what possibilities does it open up for the SF novelist, and how do these possibilities relate to earlier traditions? Williams’s answer is interesting and often delightful, if not always fully worked out, and his angle of approach harks back to classic ludenic SF writers like Zelazny and Farmer, whose pocket universes borrowed as much from fantasy as SF, and who pretty much had to weave them from whole cloth in terms of any sort of SFnal rationale. Now, with Matrioshka arrays, quantum foam, portable wormholes, and downloadable mind backups, Williams can locate his various worlds in a firmly hard-SF context, though the worlds themselves are as playfully multi-genre as ever.

The result is a novel that is, among other things, a galloping tour of various SF and fantasy subgenres. It begins as classic sword-and-sorcery, with the hero Aristide working his way across a hostile desert environment accompanied by his magical sword Tecmessa, his talking cat Bitsy, and eventually a troll-led army of warriors. (Yes, you have to get past a talking cat to get into this novel, and even though it turns out not really to be a cat, Williams should be held accountable.) After dispatching three scary alien-like ‘‘priests’’ with magical powers, Aristide returns to his home universe, a slick high-tech future in which humans have attained virtual immortality (through backups which enable them to pop into a new body whenever the old one gets killed), and a series of some four dozen pocket universes are managed by an array of 11 massive orbital computers. Aristide, in real life, is not really a swordsman at all, but a semi-retired computer specialist whose current interest is the study of implied spaces or ‘‘squinches,’’ a term borrowed from architecture to refer to the unplanned side effects of designed structures — or in this case, worlds (such as that desert, which is needed to separate the design elements of mountains and maritime valleys, but wasn’t actually part of the original plan). In good SF technique, the notion of implied spaces grows exponentially in meaning as the novel progresses and broadens in scope toward near-epic proportions.

Something is going awry in this universe, though, and it seems to be the work of a hostile intelligence with nefarious ambitions. In a brief visit to the espionage genre, Aristide is dispatched on a James Bond-like mission to a tropical world called Hawaiki, where he sets himself up as a potential victim for whoever has been kidnapping tourists there. In fairly rapid succession thereafter, Williams takes Aristide through adventures drawn from horror (a zombie plague), romance (a brief ill-fated honeymoon with his lover), space opera (‘‘‘Do you mean... we’re hurling hostile universes at each other?’’’), military SF (featuring the Screaming Cyborg Division, which is even better than a talking cat), and, by the end, a bit of Stapledonian cosmic perspective, as we learn the true nature of Aristide’s nemesis Vindex and the secrets of the origin of our universe. This is a lot to pack into a relatively short novel, and while there are some creaky joints between the major setpieces (the opening fantasy sequence, the zombie plague, the climactic space war), and while some readers will find the abrupt scenery changes jarring, what holds it together is Williams’s confident wit and his pure sense of celebration in driving us on a spin through all these genre-worlds. C.S. Lewis once rather presumptively wrote of David Lindsay that he was the first writer to discover what other planets are really good for in fiction, and Williams may turn out to be among the first to ask what singularities are really good for simply in terms of playful big-scale SF storytelling. Maybe he’s written the first Singularity Opera, though in its lightness of tone and economy of scale it’s a bit more like an operetta.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the May 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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At Friday, May 30, 2008 5:33:00 PM, Blogger Dave Truesdale said...

Nice review. It should be mentioned that approx. 145 pages of the novel (just over half) has been published as "Womb of the World" in SFBC's ALIEN CRIMES, ed. Mike Resnick (April) 2007).


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