Walter Jon Williams: The Evolution of a Novelist

To be a novelist in these days of trilogies and multi-volume sets takes a special sort of writer. Not many struggling authors can spend their creative energies in the formation of new worlds and characters every time they start a novel. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, but when your competition is selling their fifth book using the same, tired characters and plot lines for a six-figure advance, and you’re still trying to decide whether your lead will work better thematically as a female, you might have some trouble with the landlord.

The ultimate example of this kind of author, one who worked constantly as a novelist, but not a serialist, is Philip K. Dick. In his thirty-year career, Dick wrote more than fifty novels, each of which could stand on its own without requiring the reader to have been previously conversed with the setting or characters. Dick did write some “thematic” sequels, and some of his characters could be seen in more than one novel, but one would be hard pressed to call Dick a serialist. Unfortunately, Dick is also a prime example of why not too many authors follow in this direction–although he didn’t die penniless, he never received the recognition, or the five-figure advances, that his talent deserved while he was alive.

Why would someone want to write novels instead of series? I suspect that the serious writer can sense the danger in not altering his setting or characters in light of artistic development. A novelist is forced to adapt his abilities to the situation, stretching his capabilities and not letting himself stagnate. The novelist may neglect his bank account and give himself an ulcer, but can be proud of his achievement.

All of this is to say that I respect writers that aren’t afraid to step out of the “trilogy mode” and release novels that have little or no connection to each other. These writer can be counted on your digits without having to take your shoes off. And one of them is Walter Jon Williams.

Williams has been publishing SF novels since 1984, and a more varied bunch of five novels is hard to find. From the space opera-ish Ambassador of Progress to the Python-inspired lunacy of The Crown Jewels and then to the gritty techno-reality of Hardwired, Williams has shown that he wears a suit of many colors and is determined to be more than a house-name that will sell a certain type of story. Beginning a new Williams novel is always an adventure, never knowing quite what he has in mind this time around. More insecure readers may be intimidated by this approach, but for the series-jaded of us this makes for the best of all possible worlds. Each of these novels deserves its own trial and verdict, sans the stigma of how it should be considered in the framework of a series.

Ambassador of Progress

First novels, aside from the flukes like Neuromancer, are generally journeyman works–the author has yet to fully grasp not only his writing style, but the demands that 300 pages require of an SF plot. Though Ambassador of Progress isn’t Williams first novel, it his his first SF novel and the problems stem from working within that genre. Williams has little trouble with style, but his plot is too thin for 300 pages, much less the 420 that the book actually ends up being.

Ambassador of Progress bears a striking resemblance to some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. The protagonist is an off-world female who wishes to open trade between her advanced culture and the backworlds natives. Along the way, she shows her self-sufficiency as a woman and her inefficiency as an ambassador. Thendara House all over, right?

The redeeming quality of Ambassador of Progress is Williams’ divergence from his Bradleyesque theme with a trick ending. Bradley wouldn’t dare to use this trick because she wants to leave herself open to write another head-banging feminist tract, but Williams’ object is to end his story, plot, and theme in one book. The concept is a bit naive–primarily the idea that war can be waged over interstellar distances–but Williams’ point is well-taken, and should be summed for those who wish (rightly) to skip this over-long novel: Culture which are technologically advance are not always culturally advanced. (Take, for example, the United States.)

Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams, Tor, 1985, 320pp, ISBN 0812557948

Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams, Tor, 1985, 320pp, ISBN 0812557948

Knight Moves

Whereas Ambassador of Progress owed heavily to Darkover, Knight Moves is very reminiscent of Roger Zelazny’s classic This Immortal (or …And Call Me Conrad, in some versions). But Williams only reminds you of the other work in this novel, and makes the idea his own by some startling variations on the theme of the jaded immortal.

A large part of Knight Moves is the travel to the planet of mystery. In fact, you are surprised to discover that you’re halfway through the book and you still have yet to see the mystery first-hand. Williams’ ending also reflects this long struggle to get to the mystery in its very unfulfilling deus ex machina solve of the mystery, supposedly the purpose of the book. I was very disappointed with the ending because it didn’t fulfill the promise of the background or the characters. For readers who are more interested in character rather than plot this may prove no problem, but I felt cheated.

But it’s the backdrop for which I recommend the book. I realize these novels of character are highly prized by some and recognize that Knight Moves is a rewarding book as such. I just wish it could have supplied both character and plot.

I suggest that people read three of Williams’ five SF novels in print to date. Of the three I recommend, this is the weakest, but only by millimeters.

Hardwired, Walter Jon Williams, Tor, 1986, 356pp, ISBN 0812519175

Hardwired, Walter Jon Williams, Tor, 1986, 356pp, ISBN 0812519175

Hardwired

This is another Williams novel that owes something to Zelazny–this time to the action/adventure masterpiece, “Damnation Alley.” (I feel safe in making this assumption, considering that part of the inscription reads, “And special thanks to Roger Zelazny, who let me play in his Alley.”) And the first section of the novel confirms the inscription. Originally called “Panzerboy” (it appeared in Asimov’s in the April 1986 issue), this is Cyberpunk Alley and Williams treads the line between both styles with a firm step. The other half of the book is even better, as Williams moves into the realm that William Gibson introduced us to and Bruce Sterling defined. This book is Cyberpunk, and it’s not just a clone as others have argued. In Gibson, it is the style and the imagery that we can’t help but envy and wonder at. With Sterling, especially in Schismatrix, it was the never-ending barrage of ideas. But Williams is the one that brings us the world of adventure. Perhaps another example might serve: if Gibson is Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, and Sterling is Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, then Williams is The Shockwave Rider.

This emphasis on adventure has been the main cause for contention that Hardwired, and Walter Jon Williams, does not deserve the title Cyberpunk. Well, so what? Label or no label, Hardwired comes across as an exciting science fiction novel, dealing with interesting characters and ideas. Though Hardwired owes its inspiration to Zelazny and Neuromancer, it can stand by itself as another writer’s perspective of that horizon.

The Crown Jewels, Walter Jon Williams, Tor, 1987, 256pp, ISBN 0812557980

The Crown Jewels, Walter Jon Williams, Tor, 1987, 256pp, ISBN 0812557980

The Crown Jewels

This is a quick read. Luckily.

My guess is that Williams saw the void that is SF Humor and thought to himself, “God, I could make a killing!” and rushed off to write this “Divertimenti” in one draft, then sat back waiting to laugh his way to the bank. Of course, God must have been out to lunch or he would have sent Walter Jon a sign for his brain saying, “No humor aptitude here. Bank closed.”

I’m being rough on Williams, and I’m doing it mainly because I’m afraid he might prove this whole article false and decide to write a series using the characters in this book. I don’t mind being proved wrong as much as I mind the idea of these characters actually appearing in another book.

I would go into plot and characterization, but in these “humor” novels, that’s what makes up the humor. Suffice it to say that you should treat yourself to anything by P.G. Wodehouse instead, or, if you must have some SF content in everything you read, a book by John Sladek or Bruce Sterling’s novella, “The Beautiful and the Sublime.” Hopefully, one of these will be easier to locate than The Crown Jewels.

Voice of the Whirlwind, Walter Jon Williams, Tor, 1987, 278pp, ISBN 0812519248

Voice of the Whirlwind, Walter Jon Williams, Tor, 1987, 278pp, ISBN 0812519248

Voice of the Whirlwind

In Voice of the Whirlwind, Williams’ best book to date, the thriller and the SF ideas finally mesh together in all the right places, becoming a book that proves Williams’ promise as a novelist. It’s a murder mystery with a twist that is only available in SF–the detective is the deceased. Steward is a clone whose memories are fifteen years out-of-date because his predecessor failed to update his brain recording before his last, fatal, assignment. As Steward attempts to regain his memories, Williams draws a picture of a believable future society–where clones are available, if expensive; where wars are fought between corporations and the results can be monitored in the stock market; where aliens and humanity live together in trade. Once again, Williams doesn’t skimp on the plot, which is sufficiently interwoven that the story belies predictability. If the book ends happily, it’s because of Williams’ background in adventure. But then, even in this world of clones, can the ending be considered happy? (I’m trying to be vague; go out and read this one, freeloader.)

Williams has captured in Voice of the Whirlwind that sense of wonder that is all so rare in SF these days using a plot construct (clones) that many would have considered passe. It only goes to show that even the oldest cliches and ideas can be fresh if the writer works hard enough to make them so.

In his first five SF novels, Walter Jon Williams has yet to achieve true originality, even though he shines with cleverness and freshness in his later novels, particularly Voice of the Whirlwind. But in tracing his history by novels, one can’t help but observe the overall improvement in his ideas, characterization, and writing style. As Williams continues to trim his writing into a leaner, more compact version of its former self, as he continues to incorporate old ideas with a freshness that is his own imagination, and as he discovers that combination of ideas that forms new ideas, the novels of Walter Jon Williams will evolve into true opus superior. Williams’ record proves his dedication to overcoming entropy by fighting for his right to be different in every book. Given this, Walter Jon Williams emerges as an SF novelist who shouldn’t be overlooked in the coming years. It would be unfortunate if he were to lose hope and evolve into another serialist lemming, joining the droves swimming onwards to oblivion.

[Finished Spring 1988; first appeared in NOVA Express, v. 1, n. 4]

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