Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Walter Jon Williams

Today is Walter Jon Williams' 66th birthday. So here's a set of my Locus reviews of his short fiction, as we await his next Quillifer novel, due in just a couple of weeks.

Locus, July 2002

Worlds That Weren't is an anthology of four Alternate History novellas. Walter Jon Williams in "The Last Ride of German Freddie" gets credit for the wackiest idea: bring Friedrich Nietszche to the American West, specifically Tombstone at the time of the gunfight at the OK Corrall.

Locus, May 2003

The lead novella in the May Asimov's is Walter Jon Williams's "Margaux", set in his Praxis universe. The story itself is an effective portrait of Gredel, a beautiful young woman who is the girlfriend of a small-time. Gredel's accidental befriending of Caro, a bored aristocrat, drives the story. She witness Caro's empty life, and her boyfriend's increasingly risky life, her mother's status as a kept woman, and her stepmother's abuse at the hands of her husband. The lessons Gredel learns seem unavoidable in her situation – but the upshot is chilling. A solid story, with a convincing and ambiguous central character. What's missing is anything much in the way of SFnal punch, though I suspect that placing the story in its larger Praxis universe context would supply that.

Locus, November 2003

The word count in the October-November Asimov's doesn't disappoint either -- there are three long novellas (at close to 30,000 words apiece) among 7 stories. My favorite is Walter Jon Williams' "The Green Leopard Plague". A mermaid, Michelle, is hiding out on a remote South Pacific island. She makes her money doing deep background historical research, using what remains of the Net after much social upheaval and the Lightspeed War. Her client wants details about a mysterious gap in the life of Jonathan Terzian, who in that gap went from obscure Philosophy professor to the founder of a new economic and social order based engineering people to use chlorophyll for basic nourishment. (We gather that much more has changed in the intervening centuries -- people are mostly immortal, and can alter themselves to do much more than use chorophyll: for example, they can become mermaids.) The search details are interspersed with the actual story of Terzian's crucial weeks, as he encounters a mysterious woman on the run from a former Soviet mob of sorts; and he ends up helping her escape while learning the secret she carries. Michelle's is also dealing with a former lover, who "died" but has been restored from a backup, and who won't accept that she is no longer interested in him. The resolution to each thread has a nice sting in the tail, with a message about the ambiguity of historical knowledge buried in one story; and with a nice variation an age-old tale of jealousy emerging from the other.

Locus, September 2004

Walter Jon Williams's "The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid" (Sci Fiction, August 4) is great fun. Ernesto is a member of an Andean folk music group that is a front for an organization that does borderline illegal services for the right price. He is hired to retrieve a certain cargo from the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Hong Kong. Thus he must subcontract some dive experts, who happen to be members of a water ballet troop. Then they join a cruise ship as part of the entertainment, and make their way to Hong Kong, only to find that a rival group is not far behind. Plenty of action, humor, double-crossing, and even some science-fictional macguffins are on hand. Light stuff, indeed, but a joy to read.

Locus, November 2004

Between Worlds is a fine collection of novellas, edited for the SFBC by Robert Silverberg. The general theme is far distant stars – the "Galactic frontier". Walter Jon Williams offers a long piece set in his Praxis universe, "Investments", in which a couple of the heroes of the Praxis books investigate some shady business on a newly opened planet – but end up encountering a very dangerous astronomical anomaly.

Locus, June 2007

Still better in Alien Crimes is Walter Jon Williams's novel length "Womb of Every World". This opens in a fantasy-like setting, with a man named Aristide who has a magic sword and a talking cat. He heroically organizes a mission to flush out some bandits who seem to have been sacrificing caravan travelers to their evil god. But of course much more is going on than the fairly standard fantasy setup this seems to be -- in fact, the bog standard nature of the setup ends up being part of the point. Aristide is investigating a much bigger crime than the bandits' actions -- a crime with interesting speculative resonance. So in this case the genres combine beautifully -- the story truly is about a crime, but the crime is very SFnal.

Locus, March 2013

Subterranean for Winter is a special Walter Jon Williams issue, with a good old novella, “Surfacing”, and a new one, “The Boolean Gate” (published last year as a chapbook), which presents Mark Twain late in his life, quite believably, as he encounters Nikola Tesla and a bizarre project. It's been well-received in general, but I confess that while I thought it well done, in particular as to Twain's character, it didn't really work for me as a story.

Locus, October 2017

In “The Triumph of Virtue” (The Book of Swords), Walter Jon Williams introduces the hero of his new fantasy series, Quillifer. The young Quillifer, studying to be a lawyer, and in love with a beautiful woman of the new Queen’s court, gets involved in a mystery aimed, apparently, at the Queen’s inappropriate lover. Quillifer must navigate the shoals of court intrigue to solve the crime – and he learns to his discomfiture that solving the crime is much easier than dealing with an embarrassed Queen.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for celebrating WJW's birthday! Wow, 66. He does look grizzled, and had some health problems last year, I think. I still need to get to his QUILLIFER stories. One of my favorite SF writers.