I don’t think I’ve read a Walter Jon Williams novel before. I’ve read some of his short stories, in anthologies, and generally loved them. Pretty sure I got this novel from Better World Books because it was in the bargain pile and I thought it would be an interesting enough place to start reading his work. Plus, I suspect I was in a cyberpunk zone.
ETA: No, I am stupid. Of course I have read other Williams books… This is Not a Game, AND Deep State, and The Fourth Wall. I can’t believe I forgot that.
It’s a good thing I have read other stuff by him in the past.
It’s not a bad book. I did finish it. But it’s definitely not a great book, and I’ll be more circumspect in what I choose to read of his in future. Probably I will ask Jonathan for recommendations. A couple of reviewers over on Goodreads suggested that this was an example of style over substance, and that this was Williams trying to be William Gibson. The former I agreed with, by about halfway through; the second I disagree with, although I haven’t read Gibson’s complete cyberpunk oeuvre so perhaps I can’t entirely make that decision.
Style over substance: there are some lovely, almost lyrical passages in this novel. There are some amusing and clever descriptive passages. There are some that are just a bit silly, though, and seem like evidence either of Williams trying a bit too hard or the editor not trying hard enough.
William Gibson: keeping in mind it’s been a while since I read Neuromancer etc, I think there’s a different aesthetic at work here, and a different use for technology. Williams has tech for a purpose, and that’s why it exists. Even the character who loves the tech and most lives for it loves what it allows him to do, and feel – being a pilot. My memory of Gibson is that the technology is a bit more… pure is the wrong word, but perhaps abstract? Good for doing stuff, but that’s not it’s sole purpose. Those who are more familiar with Gibson, feel free to correct! (This reminds me that I really, really must read them again/finish the series (pl) that I have started…).
This is a world where orbital communities are doing nasty things to the dirt-siders, along the lines of controlling their economy and doling out important things like drugs (… the medicinal ones and the ‘medicinal’ ones). Well, I say ‘dirt-siders’; I really mean ‘people living in the former USA’, because as far as I can tell the rest of the world just doesn’t exist for this novel. Just a little thing those of us outside of the USA notice. Anyway, it’s the former USA because it’s all been divided up for various reasons that I’m sure have more resonance with people who have an actual grip on USAn geography and history (i.e. not me).
The novel is told from two perspectives: Cowboy is a pilot who lives to fly but has been grounded by the dangers of doing so – because he mostly flies on illicit ‘pony express’-type runs. Well, he’s been grounded, but he still gets to do his runs in a panzer. I was a bit dozy while reading the start because it took me ages to realise that meant he was crashing across continental US in a tank. The other perspective is provided by Sarah, whose childhood was seriously screwed up and who will do most anything to raise the serious money needed to get a better life, including radical body mods and very dangerous work. Cowboy and Sarah’s stories collide, mesh, separate and do reasonably interesting things. Intertwined throughout are advertisements for various companies – mostly for body mods or drugs – and the occasional news heading. I don’t think this is something invented by Williams, but when it’s done well (and I think it is here) I really like it as a style.
Cowboy and Sarah are both interesting enough, but I didn’t really engage with either of them. They were both too distant. Cowboy’s monomania about flying – even when it begins to get tempered by a developing conscience – prevented me from clicking with him. I thought he was pretty consistent, though, and could appreciate that. Sarah didn’t really work overall. Her concern for her brother, especially, felt out of place with the rest of her attitudes. I have no doubt it’s possible for a cynical, pessimistic person to care as deeply for a family member as Sarah is shown to – but I didn’t buy it here. Especially given what it ends up costing her.
The plot itself is fast-paced enough that I kept reading; there were some nice twists, although nothing completely unexpected. I don’t remember anything that made me want to throw the book away, so that’s faint praise but praise nonetheless. Not one I’m recommending to anyone but a hardcore Williams or cyberpunk fan.