Night Shade, 2008, 265 pages, US$24.95 hc, ISBN 978-1-59780-125-6
It’s not entirely true that Walter Jon Williams has been away from Science Fiction for a long time; it just feels that way. In the years since Aristoi (1992), Williams has written a space-opera trilogy, several well-received short stories, a mainstream catastrophe novel, a Star Wars novel, a yet-unfinished urban fantasy series and has been involved in writing alternate reality games. But from a certain viewpoint, Implied Spaces looks like William’s first standalone far-future pure-SF novel in sixteen years, and it’s somewhat of a return to form for him.
If Aristoi was ten year ahead of its time, Implied Spaces often feels like a mix CD of the coolest bit of contemporary SF. It first looks like epic fantasy, but is eventually revealed to be far-future pure Science Fiction, with an immortal adventurer slumming in artificial worlds with a powerful sword and an even-more-powerful cat to his side. Before the story is through, we’ll deal with a renegade AI, zombies, grandiose space battles, and oodles of other stuff in a relatively short 265 pages. S.M. Stirling, in his back-cover blurb, calls it a “Sword & Singularity” novel, and it’s a better description than most.
What’s certain is that Williams is having fun: the entire novel is written with a carefree eye toward fancy set-pieces and high-tech twists blending together the entire catalog of modern SF tricks and gadgets. It’s a fast read, and one that gets more than a few smiles along the way.
It’s also a great deal less conventional than you’d expect. Thanks to the novel’s post-human artificial environments, the structure of the story seems to oscillate between set pieces in exotic locales, followed by quiet chats in relaxing rooms where the novel’s stakes are raised and explained. Once the pattern becomes clear, it almost starts being amusing as the story’s Big Ideas become nothing more than exposition sequences forming the connecting tissue between otherwise-unrelated fantasy sequences. One wonders if the novel could be adapted for the theater with a few minor tweaks.
But peer closely at the novel’s architecture, and something else emerges: the awful suspicion that we’re in the hands of an author deliberately aiming at fan-favorite targets. AI using a cat proxy? Check. Pirates, ninjas and zombies? Check. Antagonist/Protagonist? Check. “Using a star as a flamethrower” [P.183]? It was awesome in E.E. Doc Smith’s time, and it’s just as awesome today.
It’s terribly unfair to suggest that Implied Spaces is a made-to-order romp that uses the familiar elements, or “power chords”, of contemporary SF in a deliberate and calculated fashion. But up to a certain point, Williams’ last spate of novels may have conditioned readers to think of it in that fashion: Since 1999’s The Rift, Williams has been trying to reinvent his career in different fashions, with media tie-ins and a military SF trilogy cold-bloodedly similar to many best-selling such series. Assuming the worst, which is to say an author deliberately returning to the heart of genre SF by writing a novel playing with the last decade’s buzzwords, it’s still not a bad thing: Implied Results is an interesting and entertaining novel, and it seems to have garnered Williams some of his most sustained genre attention in years.
SF writers have always written to market, and there’s nothing wrong with that —except when the rivets show. Frankly, it’s good to have Williams back in the genre-SF pool, competently speaking the language and riffing off the sense-of-wonder expectations of his readership, earning a place alongside the current heavy hitters of the genre. It may or may not be from the heart, but it’s certainly worth the price of a hardcover book.