Saturday, 29 October 2011

Implied Spaces - Walter Jon Williams


I have what I tend to think of as a shit list of authors. Generally, it consists of authors who come up with great ideas and then fail to execute them properly – while making me pay full price for a copy of their books. One of the many reasons why the Baen Free Library and Free Samples is such a great idea is that even if I don’t like the samples, I haven’t actually spent any money on the book and don’t feel inclined to bash the author, publisher or anyone else.

Walter Jon Williams has been on my shit list for quite some time, after I paid for a complete set of his Dread Empire Falls books. They were badly written, poorly conceived and completely failed to live up to the promise suggested by the back covers. It was only because I saw Implied Spaces in the library that I decided to buy it and read it. I am pleased (and astonished) to report that it is actually a very good book, reminding me of A Fire Upon the Deep and other far future yarns.

It is several thousand years in the future and humanity has passed through the singularity. Under the benevolent oversight of eleven powerful AIs, humanity has solved most of its ills and has spread out over countless star systems. Most of the human race enjoys living in artificial universes, where they can indulge themselves to the full. Others set out on STL trips across the universe, looking for new worlds to explore.

But all is not well in this paradise. A shadowy figure has launched a plan to take over the world and impose his own order on paradise. A desperate war ensures between the shadowy figure – who has subverted one of the AIs – and the loyalists. The war is a strange mixture of very high-tech and theories that would be understandable today. Much of it is strange and confusing at first glance, yet it makes a certain kind of sense. In a nod to Peter F. Hamilton’s work, backed up copies of dead people can be revived, allowing the dead to live on. One of the enemy’s nastier tricks is an infection that ensures that all who rise from the dead are his devoted loyalists. One gets the feeling that the only thing preventing humanity from being destroyed or enslaved by the AIs are the safeguards built into them, which ironically prevent the AIs from evolving to the point where they can simply out-evolve the enemy.

The villain actually raises a very good point in his megalomania. If there is nothing to strive for, what purpose is there to life? It is not an argument I have much sympathy with, I admit. The people who starve to death each day on our world would love to live in a post-scarcity world. His conception – that the universe is the creation of the Inept, an incompetent God – suggests a greater purpose to life. I do agree with the hero though, in some ways. What are they going to do – seek recompense from God?

In some ways, the ending is too simplistic for my tastes, but it fits in neatly with the rest of the book. The epilogue is actually – although this is not made clear – a note of the price of backsliding into barbarism, as a make-believe world of swords and sorcery becomes real and the mighty civilisation that birthed it nothing more than myths and legends. I’d like to see a sequel at some point.

Those who enjoyed John Ringo’s There Will Be Dragons may note some similar themes, but the story is very different. There are problems with presenting a post-singularity world to modern-day readers, a problem faced by other authors, yet Williams does very well. It really required an appendix too.

Overall, the book showcases the promise – and terrors – of singularity. It is definitely worth a read. A couple more like this and I may even take him off my shit list.

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