Tag Archives: scifi

Book review: Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams

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.

I got the feeling io9 wasn’t going to be my sort of blog …

… and it appears my suspicions are confirmed within a few weeks from launch:

Today’s most popular stories are

Today’s most discussed stories are
Ten Scifi Songs You Should Take to a Barren Asteroid (48 comments), Science Fiction Angels Who Are Really Aliens in Disguise (31) and Live-Action Star Wars TV Will Satisfy Your Boba Fettish (28).

And we wonder why no one takes science fiction seriously. *sigh*

[tags]io9, blog, scifi, skiffy[/tags]

Norman Spinrad freewares his latest unpublished novel

For those of you who don’t follow Warren Ellis’s blog*, I’ll pass on the news that the redoubtable Norman Spinrad has decided to release his latest and as-yet-unpublished novel, Osama The Gun, as free-to-read sections online. [At time of posting, that link is giving a 503 error thanks to the inevitable Ellis-readership Zerg-rush, so bookmark it and try again later.]

Apparently, Spinrad believes that he can’t get the novel published because of its political content. That fact, combined with the title, is certainly enough to pique my interest.

I think the greatest grin-inducer of this story is the idea of a former SFWA president cheerfully putting his work up on Scribd … 🙂


[* Yes, I know, the body-mod posts can be a bit frightening, even to a body-modder of sorts, but still …]

Science fiction, sub-genres and the consensus of definitions

Ah, the sweet taste of vindication … or at least, the satisfaction of seeing someone else agree with your own hypothesis by result of their own reasoning. Mondolithic Studios asks rhetorically whether science fiction is still a distinct genre:

I think what confuses some people is the fact that Science Fiction isn’t really a distinct genre unto itself anymore. It’s mutated into dozens of sub-genres and movements, liberally exchanged genetic material with Fantasy and social satirism and burrowed into the internet in the form of hundreds of thousands of scifi and fantasy-oriented blogs, galleries, fanzines, vlogs, podcasts and short story webzines.

Indeed.

A new life in the off-world colonies!

I’d add metaverse platforms like Second Life to that list; it’s early days yet, but Jason Stoddard and Eric Rice are leading the pack on this one, and I’m confident we’re going to see new ways of telling stories (genre or otherwise) emerging from virtual worlds in the next few years.

And let’s not forget the mash-up projects; the first one that leaps to mind is Jeremy Tolbert‘s Dr. Julius Roundbottom site, where he’s combining ‘shopped photography and clockpunk vignettes and feeding them out over RSS just like a blog. [Disclosure – Jeremy is a good friend and co-blogger at Futurismic]

Then there’s Pete Tzinski, who’s delivering his ongoing God in the Machine story as a serial, just like Wells and Conan-Doyle did, but on the web instead of in magazines. Or Don Sakers, doing the same thing with a novel. I can’t vouch for the quality of the material, because I’ve not read either of them yet – but what I can say for certain is that these people are out there using the web as a delivery system for fiction in new (or new-old) ways. People are often dismissive of pioneers until the first successes appear on the new frontier – and appear they will.

Sub-genres as suburbs

But back to Mondolithic again:

You could think of traditional Science Fiction as the built-up, established, older city core, and Sprawl [Fiction] as the rapidly expanding literary suburbs young writers are fleeing to in search of more elbow room to test out new ideas. So people who assert that “Science Fiction is dead” are looking at where scifi used to be and missing the bigger picture completely. Science Fiction has changed out of all recognition and if you want to think of that as a crisis, it’s a crisis of diversity rather than a morbidly existential one. [my bold]

This reminds me of my genre ghetto analogy; the Mondolithic writer has reached a very similar image, although he’s come to it from a different angle. And that angle reminds me of my floating point variable analogy – if I might be so vain as to quote myself:

For me at least, it’s that simple. A book is not, in and of itself, science fiction. But it may well partake of science-fictionality (science-fiction-ness?) to a lesser or greater extent – and that extent is, at least partly, determined by my perception of the book in question, as well as my perception of the canon of works that inform the term ‘science fiction’.

I could also delve back into my analogy to the sub-genres of rock music, but I think everyone’s heard enough of that by now. And why belabor the point? After all, I’m not saying anything that far smarter and more qualifier commentators aren’t saying too. Lou Anders on the steampunk resurgence:

…a visit to Wikipedia shows how large the canon of steampunk really is, including a lot of alternate history, much of Tim Powers, and labeling a lot of classic fiction as “proto-steampunk” in the same way PKD and Bester are sometimes said to be proto-cyberpunk.

So, is steampunk a niche of a niche of a niche? Or is the real age of steampunk just beginning?

I’d argue it’s having a high moment right now, but it will never die completely – and nor will any sub-genre, ever again. This is the internet, baby – everything here will last forever, or at least until civilisation as we know it collapses.

Sub-genre definition by consensus

But to close, I’ll just reiterate that sub-genre is in the eye of the beholder. Damon Knight’s adage is an enduring one, and filters down into the subdivisions with the same power it had at the top of the pyramid – in other words, steampunk means what you point to when you say it.

And it’s the debate over these definitions that, in my opinion, keeps genre fiction alive – if we care enough to debate the labels, that’s a sign of vigour. And debate we do, as Kathryn Cramer observes while riding flank on some Wiki wars:

Since there are not commonly shared theories of literary genre underpinning the evolution of these [Wikipedia] articles, they tend to devolve into something reminiscent of the end game of a game of life when the little groups of pixel enter a repeating pattern; cycles of argument about whether a work or writer is or is not hard sf, as if this was as easy to decide as something like nationality …

I’d suggest the fluidity of definition is actually a good thing, at least as far as literature is concerned; floating point variables, as mentioned above. (But then I’d also argue that nationality is a much more fluid concept nowadays, too.) Consensus is morbidity.

But the take-home point is this – as the chap at Mondolithic observed, science fiction is far from dead. It just appears to have gone through a metastasis.

Friday Photo Blogging: Portsmouth as it once was

Here’s one for the history buffs! This is chart from the manuscript collections at the Royal Naval Museum where I work, that shows the layout of Portsmouth as it was in 1726:

Map Of Portsmouth 1726

As you can see, there was a lot less then than there is now. If my estimates are correct, the Hall Of Mirrors (my humble abode) would be somewhere in the midst of what is labelled as ‘The Great Morass’ (bottom left, almost out of shot – it’s a big chart). That could be taken as still being true in a metaphorical sense …

Full-time flashback

And speaking of morasses (is that a real plural?), my schedule has been a bit of a swamp this week; as I think I mention last week, I’m currently covering for the colleague with whom I job-share, which means I’m working full-time hours.

Having only been part-time for just under six months, I’m astonished at home quickly I’ve become accustomed to having more time on my hands … and how effectively I’ve managed to fill it all up with other work! Suffice to say that getting all my blogging, reviewing and interviews done this week has been a bit of a marathon effort, and I’m very thankful for the forthcoming bank holiday.

Scribblings delivered and pending

Over the last weekend, I wrote three articles – an introduction to Second Life (for D+PAD), a report on the SFF Masterclass I attended back in June (for Vector), and a piece on why anyone taking a potential career as a writer (or other sort of artist) needs to have their own website (for Focus). The Focus piece I consider to be an especially good result for me – as the “writers’ magazine” of the BSFA, that’s a fairly prestigious publication to be appearing in.

This week I’ve already knocked out three CD reviews (which I did last night, because the albums themselves took a while longer than they should have done to work their way through the postal service), and spent some time chatting on the phone to Tony Wright, who you may know as the frontman of semi-defunct Britrock heroes Terrorvision. He now has another band, Laika Dog, who have a new album in the pipeline … so I got to speak to him about the decay of the corporate music industry, and rock and roll as a vocation rather than a career. Lovely chap, great interviewee.

Interviews in the pipeline include the legendary David Yow (formerly of The Jesus Lizard, now frontman for Qui); Mark Meyers from Pox, a band who share history (and former members) with Belgian alternative heroes dEUS; history-obsessed UK post-rock outfit iLiKETRAiNS; and (way off in October) the mighty Oceansize. I may not get paid for any of this yet, but I certainly get to talk to some interesting people!

Apparel received

I don’t buy T-shirts anywhere near as often as I used to, but the urge still takes me from time to time. When I heard a friend was going to see the inimitable Tool at Brixton Academy this week, I asked him to pick me up a shirt while he was there; by sheer coincidence, my official WordPress T-shirt (that I had totally forgotten I ordered) arrived by mail the same day.

RockTee vs. GeekTee

So, choices: do I dress rock, or do I dress geek?

I know, I seriously need to get a life.

Books and magazines seen

Well, this is the third week in a row that an issue of F&SF (October/November 2007 this time) has arrived in my letterbox – which I take to mean I won’t be seeing any more until around December or thereabouts.

I’m definitely going to switch to digital when my current sub expires – I know it’s not the magazine’s fault, but the delivery is incredibly irregular. Plus that way I’ll get to pick and choose which issues to take.

A busy week for books:

  • Ascendancies – The Best of Bruce Sterling – the long-awaited (and, as always, beautifully made) Subterranean hardback that collects the highlights of Sterling’s career. I shall be saving this one for when I take some time off work, so I can just devour it in a day or so.
  • Queen of Candesce by Karl Schroeder – next review job for Interzone, and sequel to the excellent Sun of Suns.

And from SF Site (after a journey from Canada of over a month’s duration, according to the postmark):

  • Land of the Headless by Adam Roberts – well, it’s a Roberts, so I’m expecting high literary values. I nearly said “I expect it’ll be clever”, but I know that annoys him
  • Human Is? – a Philip K. Dick Reader – PKD is one of the huge self-assessed gaps in my sf-nal knowledge. I know loads of his work second-hand (through reading frequent reviews and references to them), but I’ve not read a number of what are considered to be his most seminal works – so this should be an enjoyable (and long overdue) education.

All this serves as a reminder that I’m hideously backlogged on books to be read and reviewed. Once this full-time intermission is over at the day-job, I think I’ll need to take a week off from music reviews (and possibly my increasingly rare and truncated visits to Second Life) and just attack the book pile to whittle it down to manageable proportions.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more appealing an idea that becomes …

[Side note: one of the books above came with a press release that described its author as “… one of the best writer’s (sic) in the field.” Come on, guys, you’re marketing literature here – surely you should be proofreading for the correct use of apostrophes? If any publicists require a new copywriter, my email is in the sidebar to the right …]

Coda

Well, that’s about it for this week. I can hear the silent yet clarion call of Meat Balti (Madras Hot) from a few streets away, so I shall venture forth to purchase (and subsequently consume) The Friday Curry.

In the meantime, enjoy your weekend (and extra day, if you’re a Brit) – I’m not even going to bother mentioning the weather, because doing so hasn’t helped at any point in the last few months. So, regardless of location or climate, have a good time doing whatever you’re doing. Hasta luego!