Book review: Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams


Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams

Night Shade Books hardback, 256pp, RRP US$24.95, ISBN 978-1-59780-125-6 – June 2008

Night Shade Books must know that people like myself – despite believing ourselves to be sophisticated and resistant to slick marketing and simple sub-genre categorisation – are actually easy marks. I caught sight of the gorgeous Dan Dos Santos cover of Walter Jon Williams‘s Implied Spaces, noticed it was described as a “novel of the Singularity”, and I just had to read it. Thankfully, this swift little novel is rewarding in proportion to its promise.

The upfront marketing makes more sense once you start reading, because Implied Spaces starts off reading more like a Middle Eastern fantasy, and stays that way for a good three chapters. Our hero Aristide is a travelling warrior-poet with a talking cat who gets mixed up in a conflict with a notorious and fanatical gang of caravan bandits in a sort of remixed Arabian Nights scenario.

While there are subtle clues for the experienced reader of sf that all is not as it may initially seem, it’s some time before the setting is revealed to be the immersive simulation that it actually is. It’s a brave move on Williams’s part – one that an author of lesser reputation could probably not risk taking – and it has the desired effect of bonding us to Aristide and his complex fighting-philosopher persona.

It transpires that Midgarth, the region where Aristide was roaming, is one of many “pocket universes”, created by posthumanity through wormhole-related jiggery-pokery as part of a civilisation-wide reaction to the Existential Crisis – the question of what-to-do when you’re functionally immortal and technologically omnipotent. Williams manages to humanise posthumans with this neat and believable philosophical sleight-of-hand, while simultaneously retaining all the aspects that make them fun to read about, resulting in a civilisation that resembles Iain M Banks’s Culture in some respects.

The big difference is that in the Culture, conflicts begin at the fringes; in Implied Spaces, Williams has the rot setting in at the core. Williams has a faster pace and sparser style than Banks, too – once we’re out of Midgarth and Aristide is revealed to be a much bigger player than was initially apparent, we move rapidly through escalations of crisis that bring posthumanity to the brink of extinction in pretty short order.

Despite the setting, Implied Spaces has a familiar sf-nal plot shape, and Aristide has more than a hint of the Heinleinian Capable Man about him. But this is where the value of those early chapters comes into play; we’ve already learned that there’s some genuine contradiction and compassion beyond the adaptable have-a-go hero, and we’re less tempted to dismiss him as a Mary Sue as a result.

Williams also invokes Golden Age sf in his battle scenes and their dispassionate mega-deaths, which are ludicrously (and enjoyably) immense; many reviewers have already compared Implied Spaces to Doc. Smith’s output, and while I’ve not read the Lensman books I know enough of them to see it’s a point well made.

I suspect there’s more than simple homage at play, however. In fact, to be blunt, I think Williams succeeds in having his cake and eating it, delivering sly winks all the while. After all, what’s the fun in painting a huge canvas if you can’t play games in the details?

Though Draeger was centuries old, her biological age was never more than sixteen: she wore her hair in ponytails that dropped from high on her head nearly to her waist, and she had equipped herself with eyes twice the size of the human norm. All the humans in her division were industrial designers from New Penang, and they had equipped their fighters with picturesque but non-functional innovations: weird frills, decorative antennae, brilliantly-coloured camouflage projections, and full sets of teeth.

“Death For Art’s Sake!” Draeger cried, the divisional motto, and her division kicked its way through piles of wrecked robots and swung over to the attack. [pp189]

You can picture the grin Williams must have worn as he typed some of these passages – because unless you’re a more cynical reader than myself, it’ll be the same one that’s plastered on your own face. This is another commonality Williams shares with Banks, these nudges and wry subtexts; their styles are very different, but they play the same game. Other examples include Williams’s deft posthuman spin on the hoary B-movie zombie trope; enjoyably schlocky, but a convincing threat within the framework of the fictional space.

As should be expected from a “novel of the Singularity”, Implied Spaces is knowingly postmodern. Williams reappropriates old riffs and gags, takes humour seriously and seriousness flippantly, tacitly acknowledges the book’s status as a fictional text within a universe of other fictional texts (naked in-genre references ahoy!) but never entirely steps outside of the pact with the reader – although he more than occasionally taps on the glass of the fourth wall and winks.

Williams isn’t just writing the disposable pulp that you could easily treat it as. The book is shot through with some surprisingly rich philosophical issues that show he’s gotten to grips with the real human implications of a post-Singularity civilisation in a way that few writers achieve, as well as working in contemporary themes like religious extremism and the surveillance-society panopticon.

There’s genuine food for thought behind most of the plot twists, and plenty of good old-fashioned sensawunda – in fact, given the recent rush for that particular bandwagon, I’m very surprised that Night Shade didn’t think to push Implied Spaces as a Young Adult novel. It’s got all the flash-bang gosh-wow and clear plotting that the YA market demands, but also contains deeper layers to reward the older (or simply closer) reader. It’s fast, fun and smart – and you can’t ask for much more than that from a posthuman space opera.

3 thoughts on “Book review: Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams”

  1. That’s appreciated, Shaun; hopefully a bit of life juggling will enable me to do them more often. It’s nice to be able to dig in and go to town on a piece like this.

    Still, wait until you see the infamous epic Brasyl review in the new Foundation when it arrives … now that was a real rambling exploration, and I only used about a quarter of my notes. You could write a thesis on that thing, I tell you! :-0

  2. Belated me-too praise for your review, the best I’ve seen online. Finally got around to reading the book, and my reaction is very similar to yours. Definitely a keeper, worth rereading sometime.

    Best for 2009, Pete Tillman

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