Walter Jon Williams

This Is Not a Game, Walter Jon Williams

This Is Not a Game, Walter Jon Williams

Orbit, 2009, 369 pages, C$27.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-00315-5

The first thing I like about Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game is the title: Direct, dramatic and as blunt as it’s possible to be.  The cover of the US hardcover edition appropriately displays it in big bold letters taking up most of the available space.  It’s a clue as to the nature of the story in more ways than one, especially in flagging how contemporary the novel is meant to be: In Science Fiction history, “This is not a Game” has sometimes been a Hugo-winning third-act plot twist.  It’s also a title that alludes to the recent wave of stories reflecting on the ever-shifting nature of reality at a time where it’s increasingly augmented with other sources of information.  Charles Stross, with Halting State, made quite a splash by looking at the boundaries between life and play and This is Not a Game makes use of similar ideas, albeit with a very different focus.

But outside the written SF community, the title is a fundamental credo for another interest group:  In the field of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), “This is Not a Game” is a design aesthetic that differentiates this burgeoning type of entertainment from other types of play: Designers of ARGs seek to present an experience to the player that spans the narrow confines of traditional games.  ARGs ask players to scour the web, make phone calls, investigate in person, solve clues and piece together very different pieces of information.  Already almost ten years old, ARGs are a particularly vivid reminder of the blurring distinction between pursuits we’ve been conditioned to consider separate.

Walter Jon Williams isn’t a stranger to either SF or ARGs: His decades-old SF track record is distinguished, and he has been involved in creating ARGs since 2005, when he collaborated on “Last Call Poker” for market leader 42 Entertainment.  In his newest novel, we get not only a gripping thriller set five minutes in the future, but a look behind the scenes of an ARG, as the puppetmasters writing the game have to deal with an alternate reality with no fourth wall.

But there’s a bit more at stake than a look at games that bring together thousands of people in a global clue-hunt: As This Is Not a Game begins, our ARG-creating protagonist Dagmar Shaw sees her holidays in Indonesia become a catastrophe as the country is shut down and riots break around her hotel.  Engineering her rescue away from this mess ends up being a problem that not even a well-financed Israeli security contractor can solve: In the end, Dagnar finds greater value in tapping the game-playing community and crowd-sourcing her own safety to the diverse talents of perfect strangers scattered around the globe.

And that’s just the first act, because once she’s back stateside, Dagmar’s life soon turns into a nightmare when friends are acquaintances are murdered.  It’s clear to her that this is not a game-related development, but the players of her ongoing ARG aren’t so sure.  When the police admit that the investigation may tax even their capabilities, Dagmar sees another opportunity to let the group mind of her plays chew on the evidence.  But as she eventually discovers, it’s hard to get away from the game once it takes over…

Williams has often challenged genre boundaries, and this latest book marks a return to high-end thrillers just a step away from near-future SF.  This is Not a Game inhabits the same ultra-contemporary territory as William Gibson’s Spook Country, albeit with a far more visible plot.  Given this, it’s unfortunate but forgivable that it’s that plot that ends up being the novel’s weakest link: While the look at the inner workings of ARGs is fascinating and the thriller makes good use of the mirrored halls offered by games that voluntarily don’t take place in an identifiable sandbox, Williams isn’t as successful at creating a sustained sense of suspense: There aren’t enough characters to pose a serious mystery, and the last stretch of the novel is annoyingly linear in how Dagmar turns the tables on the guilty party.  A lot of loose ends remain, but the promise of a sequel (which you wouldn’t guess from the jacket copy) may end up making use of a bunch of those.  There are also a few technical bugs for nit-pickers.  (Regarding P.336:  HTML is not case-sensitive; XHTML is supposed to be.  Web servers very well have to be.)

Not that it matters all that much: This is Not a Game is a more-than-honorary member of the SF genre partly because it’s a novel of demonstration.  It has a few great ideas and runs us through them.  The opening sequence in Indonesia can’t be equalled, but the rest of the novel remains an intriguing thought experiment, a thriller played with Science Fiction set-pieces that would have boggled minds even a decade ago.  There’s even some meta-commentary on the SF writers’ community and a few nods in store for SF fans with sharp eyes.  The prose is a pleasure to read, and the flavour of the novel is definitely of the times: This is Not a Game couldn’t have been written as such five years from now, and will probably date faster than most SF novels published in 2009.  In the meantime, though, it’s a welcome demonstration of Williams’ skills, a solid follow-up to his previous Implied Spaces and a novel that, given his background, only he could have written.

Implied Spaces, Walter Jon Williams

Implied Spaces, Walter Jon Williams

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.

Dread Empire’s Fall: Conventions of War, Walter Jon Williams

EOS, 2005, 677 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-380-82022-1

I may be one of the few who still remembers that in the wild and woolly days of 1997, Walter Jon Williams launched a short-lived on-line SF criticism magazine called “Hardwired”. It was meant to be by and for working SF writer trying to advance the state of the art and warn against the perils of commercial publishing. The second issue was dedicated to Fat Fantasy, the pernicious tendency of fantasy to be spread over lengthy volumes. (The magazine disappeared from the web in 2005, but The Internet Archive remembers everything!)

But fast-forward ten years later, and even the snarkiest writers can do things that their earlier selves might have found ironic. So it was that between 2002 and 2005, Walter Jon Williams saw the publication of a space-opera trilogy called Dread Empire’s Fall. A big straight-to-paperback 1,500-page trilogy.

There are probably excellent reasons for this. Despite William’s continued brilliance, he has never completely caught fire commercially. Brilliant early-nineties novels like Aristoi might have anticipated the post-human SF craze that gave rise to Charles Stross’ Accelerando by a good thirteen years, but they haven’t made Williams a best-selling SF writer. The post-Aristoi phase of William’s career was marked by attempts to broaden his scope as a writer, but those efforts didn’t pan out as planned: His ambitious fantasy trilogy begun with Metropolitan remains unfinished (a victim of publishing industry reorganization, we’re told), and the fat disaster novel The Rift (by “Walter J. Williams”) wasn’t followed by any further attempt at the mainstream thriller market.

What we got next was Dread Empire’s Fall, a trilogy going after the same military-SF audience that have made David Weber a bestselling author. Clever career move? Maybe. As a reader, I’m only qualified to say that the trilogy felt less interesting than Williams’ previous novels, and the thing that fascinated me the most about it was how it wobbled more than what it did well.

I haven’t reviewed the first two volumes of the series in part because they seemed a bit light: The plot-to-page ratio felt closer to Fat Fantasy than to most contemporary SF. As Williams set up his universe, his characters and his plot, the trilogy seemed stuck in one set piece after another.

(For reference, a nutshell summary of the trilogy: The last of the galaxy-controlling aliens dies, plunging the “Dread Empire” in a civil war that’s roughly humans-against-nasty-aliens. Against that backdrop, competent but badly-connected captain Gareth Martinez falls in love with the ruthless pilot Caroline Sula. Numerous complications due to the highly rigid nature of their society make their love difficult and their military career dangerous.)

The good news is that Conventions of War delivers a satisfying (albeit not happy) conclusion to the entire trilogy, and that it ties up the subplots that took so long to set up in the first two thirds of the trilogy. Williams writes entertainingly no matter what he does, and so Conventions of War is a pleasant diversion from beginning to end. His characters alone are worth the ride: Martinez is sympathetic yet beholden to an awful system, whereas Sula is a force of nature that’s as deadly as she’s worth cheering for.

But the series feels like a badly-controlled experiment, and the third volume is worse than the others in reinforcing that feeling. At roughly 50% longer that the first two volumes, Conventions of War physically gives the impression of a story that has sprawled out of control. The move away from space battles into ground-side resistance and shipboard murder mystery also smacks of a runaway plot: in order to give interesting alternating chapters as he flips between his two protagonists, Williams finds himself spreading the story thin. And, throughout, the same thoughts bubble up: Is there a point to making this story 1,500 pages? Couldn’t this have been done in a single volume?

Because even with the triumphant space battles at the end, even despite the amusing details about a society engineered to be rigidly hierarchical, Dread Empire’s Fall feels like a minor work, a writer playing games on his readership. The society described here feels too stunted to survive long (it does change during the trilogy, though not enough to preclude further volumes) and the overall feel is closer to a comfort fantasy trilogy than an authentic work of extrapolative science-fiction. But, then again, this is meant to be a military space-opera, and as such, Dread Empire’s Fall is more interesting than most examples in the genre. Williams certainly earns point for delivering an uncomfortable conclusion that remains true to the emotional arc of the characters.

Not having access to Bookscan numbers, I can’t say whether this side-trip in Fat Space Opera has been fruitful for Williams. It’s certainly not a complete artistic success despite good moments here and there. But that only makes my anticipation for his next book even bigger: What will he try next?

The Rift, Walter J. Williams

Harper Torch, 1999, 932 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105794-0

Sooner or later, it happens to every good Science Fiction author who looks longingly at the stacks of Michael Crichton books nonchalantly plastered all over the the “Best-Selling” section of their local bookstore: I’ve got skills, they say to themselves, I can write as well as any of the morons on the best-seller lists. If I wasn’t stuck in a dead-end genre like SF, I could be a superstar. Then they go home and slap together a techno-thriller proposal. If their editor has any sense, they are reminded that SF may be a backwater ghetto, but it’s a faithful backwater ghetto packed with fans that can be cultivated over dozens of books.

But sometimes, the proposal is accepted and the author embarks on a long voyage outside the familiar terrain of SF. Real-world research ensues, along with feverish dreams of mainstream success. The novel is published under a slightly different name to fool the evil Chain Ordering Computers. Few SF fans are tempted by the offer. Time passes. Mainstream success fails to strike. The author comes back to SF, much wizened and downright eager to get back to business.

The Rift is Walter Jon Williams’ own trip in the mainstream wilderness, with typically mixed results. To be entirely fair, while Williams has enjoyed a steady amount of success in the SF field, he has never been totally comfortable within the genre: He started out writing historical naval adventures, then (following Ambassador of Progress, itself almost a medieval warfare novel) found the SF field far more receptive to his talents. His career has spanned several sub-genres of SF, from cyberpunk (Hardwired) to near-future thriller (Days of Atonement). His foray in disaster fiction shouldn’t be surprising. In the SF corral he’s always been the young buck sniffing at the gate.

The Rift, unfortunately, hasn’t done much to further his mainstream career, nor his SF one. You just have to look at the book to suspect why: At nearly one thousand pages, it doesn’t fulfil its epic promise or delivers on the demands it asks of the readers’ time. It it too long, too fluffy. Despite the deaths and the destruction, nothing happens for hundreds of pages.

Given the premise (An earthquake in the American Midwest, straight on top of the New Madrid fault), you already know the story. Plucky heroes with something to prove, faced with the evil born out of desperate situations. Heart-stopping (yawn-inducing) adventures. Lengthy exposition. Potential disasters even greater than earth-shattering quakes, narrowly averted. It’s all there. And yet we wish it wasn’t. Many part of the book are interesting… but many more of them just aren’t.

Reading this thousand-page book is an exercise in self-configuring reading skills. You will quickly figure out to skip the lengthy page-long excerpts. You will learn to recognize the meaningless mini-dramas that extend over three pages (Oh no! A snake! Will it bite???) and then how to gloss over them. You will figure out that the young protagonist’s main task is to run from one bad situation to another, bringing light and happiness down the river. The problem isn’t with Williams’ writing skills. The problem is in the lack of editing, letting a middle-of-the-river tale overflow its natural boundaries to flow shallowly over land it was never meant to cover. This is a book to read quickly, for fear of staying stuck as the flow of your interest will recede in its usual boundaries.

It’s not the first novel about the New Madrid fault, and it’s maybe the weakest one: Certainly, I had more fun reading Peter Hernon’s 8.4 (which clocks in at half the length and twice the excitement). It may not be Williams’ most ordinary novel, but it’s certainly his dullest. Hey, I can’t begrudge him the attempt at best-seller stardom… but it’ll be a good thing to have him back and firing on all cylinders.

The five years since The Rift‘s publication seems to have independently validated this assessment; after running wild for a while (even writing an -ack, ptui- Star Wars novel), he’s now back in the SF corral, producing fine short stories and working on a space opera trilogy. The young buck has stopped sniffing at the gates, at least for a while. Here’s hoping that his next escapade will be more satisfying for all.

City on Fire, Walter Jon Williams

Harper Prism, 1997, 498 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-105213-2

Walter Jon Williams is undoubtedly one of the best SF writers today. The fascinating thing is that he has become such by producing an array of remarkably different novels: From cyberpunk (Hardwired) to near-future police procedural (Days of Atonement) to all-out Big SF (Aristoi) to humorous comedy of manners (The Drake Maijstral trilogy), Williams manages to entertain with considerable wit and style.

His latest book, City on Fire is the first “straight” sequel he has written. Strangely, it’s a book that manages to be sufficiently different from the original to be interesting, all the while being a logical successor to the previous work: Metropolitan was probably the truest example of urban fantasy ever. Starting from the basic premise that certain arrangements of metal and concrete produce a quasi-magical force called plasm, Williams crafted a novel of ambition, revolution and multifaceted power. Aiah, a lowly plasm inspector, accidentally discovers a hidden plasm reserve, which she then offers it to one of the aristocrat (Constantine, a Metropolitan) of her city. Romance and revolution ensued, with the result that Metropolitan ended with a newly-conquered city, and tons of loose ends.

City on Fire begins as Aiah returns to the newly conquered city, ostensibly to take up a new job as head of a plasm enforcement unit, but also to be closer to Constantine. Most of the book is political in nature: The crosses and double-crosses necessary to maintain a fragile new alliance over the recently liberated city are numerous, and not uninteresting.

The sequel is a bigger book than the original, and also possibly a better work. After the first few pages, the reader is completely integrated in Williams’ latest world. Political fiction always run the danger of becoming a meaningless jumble of names and parties but fortunately, Williams’ storytelling skills avoid this.

The style has a certain flourish, but most readers won’t notice this, as they’ll be caught up in Aiah’s rise through the city’s hierarchy. The main protagonists are exceptionally well handled, and even minor characters are distinct and easily remembered. Every scene in the book is intercut with headlines and ads from the city’s media, an effective trick that was under-used in Metropolitan.

Since this series seems to be headed toward being a trilogy, it is interesting to note that in Metropolitan, Aiah is Constantine’s subordinate. By the End of City on Fire, however, she is beginning to be his equal. This will be interesting to watch in the third volume.

Metropolitan had the distinction of being a fantasy with most of hard science-fiction’s concern for consistency and world-building. Indeed, some reviewers called Metropolitan SF, rationalizing the shield and plasm as sufficiently advanced technology. The debate isn’t likely to be resolved in City on Fire, but the indicators seem to point toward an interesting sequel…

While City on Fire isn’t exciting at the level of Williams’ best novels, it is a sufficiently attractive read for any reader with an interest in the author, Metropolitan, or complex political stories. Perhaps not flamboyant enough to warrant being bought in hardcover, but probably worth the paperback price.