Walter Jon Williams's latest novel is a strange beast. Stitched together with coarse thread are the twitching limbs of high fantasy, hard-edged military SF, political intrigue, and Benford or Clarke-esque glimpses of something beyond. The beast functions well enough—running, jumping, eating your children—but some reeking wounds where thigh was grafted to torso, antenna to eye socket, are more fully healed than others. And even in the best cases, the stitching is so obviously done and so distracting that at some point that black Morse thread becomes the greatest point of focus, certainly for the reader but I suspect for the writer as well.
But maybe this is the wrong place to start. Let me begin with the creator of the ill-sewn beast. Williams seems to be a writer concerned chiefly with those elements of popular fiction that might be called, lacking a pithier piece of vernacular, awesome. It's as if the man has made a bet with himself that he can include one idea from each of his favorite genre books, regardless of which particular genre that might be. Sword fights? Check. Limb-lopping battle exoskeletons? Check. Viscous pools of flesh-reconstituting nanotech? Awesome. A few chapters even mimic the aquatic serenity of Williams' own superlative Nebula-winning story from 2004, "The Green Leopard Plague." Because Williams has already written every flavor of genre novel, from high fantasy to police procedural, it is not so unimaginable that he should draw from each here. He's certainly had more practice than most. The sheer variety of proximate and discrete genre tropes, however, gives the book a certain manic quality, if to good effect.
Williams' protagonist, Aristide, is a reformed engineer and programmer. He was involved, a few centuries ago, with the design of the seven AIs that now orbit Sol closely on platforms constructed out of Earth's moon, among other debris. Humanity, or its majority, lives in various more or less primitively constructed pocket universes whose wormhole points of access are kept on the surfaces of these AI plates. Their design earned him a measure of fame, but he's since changed his appearance and taken up swordsmanship. The software jockey cum blade-genius device was absurd in Snow Crash, and it's no less so here, but that doesn't seem to concern Williams and it shouldn't draw our attention from the really salient point in all this, which is that Aristide's sword Tecmessa has a wormhole in its blade. Awesome.
When the novel opens, Aristide and his sword and his cat, which is really an avatar of one of the AIs—say it with me: awesome—are in a desert on the inner surface of a rudimentary cylindrical universe created and populated explicitly for the entertainment of gamers. They are there to investigate that universe's implied spaces, about which more later, but of course find some swordplay and bravado instead.
Williams is skilled enough at action sequences to make these fights, and the handful of others that follow, thrilling and relatively easy to picture. Unlike so much of the deadly serious SF and fantasy that's been on the scene lately—the work of epic fantasists like Martin, Abercrombie, and Durham comes to mind here—Williams has chosen to write such scenes with a bit of aplomb. His characters aren't really insouciant like a Grey Mouser might be; they are just very aware of the sort of story in which they appear. This enables Aristide to shrug off each new shocking revelation without too much actual shock. He's prone to deadpan comments, like "Using a star as a flamethrower. That was new" (p. 183). It also means that even when humanity's future is at stake, the danger cannot come across as intensely as Williams might like. In a novel with no narrator, an affectless writing style, and such oft-changed landscape, the characters themselves must be our barometers for alarm. As they remain unimpressed, so then will I.
If Williams writes conflict well, he is a bit weaker at moments of dialogue. They are not poor, exactly, just very engaging and full of the sort of throwaway wit that so often passes for actual speech in adventure stories. His action scenes are so often fatal for Aristide, too, that in order to tie them together and make the plot more coherent Williams is forced to bookend them with long expository conversation, most often in the hub Myriad City. In one such interlude early in the book Williams explains his title. "If you stand beneath [that] dome," Aristide says,
"you'll see that there are blank triangular spaces beneath the dome and between the arches. These are called 'squinches,' believe it or not."
Daljit smiled at him. "I'm delighted to know there are things called squinches, whether you invented the term or not."
He bowed to her then looked out at the dome again. "The point is, the architect didn't say to himself, 'I think I'll put up four squinches.' What he said is 'I want a dome, and the dome needs to be supported, so I'll support it with arches.' The squinches were an accident implied by the architect's other decisions. They were implied."
I'll pass over the relatively inaccurate use of the term "imply" here and throughout the book, and point out instead that the architecture Aristide studies is of a somewhat larger scale. The conversation continues:
"Say you're a die-hard romantic who wants to design a pre-technological universe full of color and adventure. Say you want high, craggy mountains, because they're beautiful and wild and inspiring and also because you can hide lots of orcs in them. Say you also want a mountain loch to reflect your beautiful high-Gothic castle, and a fertile plain to provide lots of foodstuffs that you can tax out of your peasants—many of whom are brain-clones of yourself, by the way, with a lot of the higher education removed, and inhabiting various specially grown bodies of varying styles and genders. ... [T]he fertile valley has to be adjacent to the ocean, because the river's got to go somewhere, and in the meantime you've got this mountain range with its romantic tarn over here... so what goes in between?"
She looked at him. "You're going to tell me it's a squinch." (p.48)
The small irony here is that this conversation and the lightly sketched city in which it takes place are an example of the stitching, the implied spaces, that tie this book of set pieces together. Like the high desert that must lie between mountains and valley, Myriad City, where Aristide goes to rest and woo women a millennium younger than he, is a necessary result of the fact that he travels to various realms, and likewise reveals something of the creative process that shaped it. It exists, that is, because the settings of his varied adventures demand an intermediary, a hub of sorts. It is an implied space within the novel. These action-poor bits of conversation tend to cap the front end of a chapter (which tend to end with cliffhangers) and include a bit of explication or justification for the action preceding and following. Aristide spends much of his time in the city in various meeting rooms, labs, or apartments, hashing out plans, being resurrected, resurrecting others, and generally recovering from and planning for another encounter with the plot. In fact, some of the best action does take place in Myriad City—did I mention the zombies yet?—but at these moments the city is transformed so dramatically that it becomes an essentially different setting. In any case, it is not only the city that is the implied space here, but the instances of banter and other dialogue.
I don't mean to make these portions, which by word count must amount to a mere quarter of the book, seem disinteresting. Certainly they are relatively boring and poorly written interruptions of an otherwise thrilling book of wormhole warfare. To my mind, however, the novel's implied spaces are its most interesting parts for what they reveal about the author's hand in their creation. To belabor the metaphor, I'm less interested in this chimeric beast for its own sake than I am in why and how someone would stitch it together and animate it. Aristide's constant returns to the city show us that Williams is also more interested in the adventurous excursions in his book, that he may have even conceived them separately and smashed them together after the fact, and that he seems to be taking cues from games and gaming culture. Williams is a gamer himself and has had a hand in designing at least two roleplaying games. Indeed, his next novel, due out from Orbit this coming March, is a thriller about an Alternate Reality Game. It would not be surprising, then, if as a reader you begin to feel that the plot was drafted with an eye toward gaming conventions. That Leroy Jenkins of Warcraft fame is mentioned at one point might also be something of a clue.
More importantly, as these implied spaces show us some of Williams's methods, they also make us aware of him as an Author behind the story. They remind us that the book is written. Apart from being a satisfying and unusual touch of craftsmanship, at least within the genre, this meshes incredibly well with the larger themes of the novel. There is a discovery late in the book which, though I'll respect it by not discussing it in too much detail, seems meant to cue a feeling of extrascientific transcendence. It falls flat as a moment of awe, for the reasons discussed above and because the revelatory scene includes a painfully corny villain, but engages so perfectly with Williams's themes of craft, intention, and, well, fiction, that it comes off as a masterstroke of depth if not affect.
This beast of a novel snarls. It oozes. Its stitching is grotesque. But as well as being damn fine entertainment and looking cool when taken out into public places (the jacket art by dos Santos is hilariously accurate and a flag to all the right people), it is actually an interesting commentary on nothing less than fiction itself. I won't blame you if you read it for the fangs—they're there and they glisten marvelously—but if, in glancing between the novel's appendages, you do find yourself distracted by a suture or two, take a moment to look at them, as it seems Williams intended.
Dustin Kurtz is a bookseller in downtown Manhattan. And though the city feels open and endless on cool summer nights, he misses the lakes of home.
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