When first peeling back the first few pages of Walter Jon Williams’s Implied Spaces don’t be too surprised that it doesn’t immediately read like the science fiction novel it’s billed as. In fact, I should have realized this after I read one of the quotes on the hardback’s cover that suggested that he was pioneering a subgenre of science fiction that S. M. Stirling called “Sword & Singularity.” In fact, more than once I had to check my expectations at the door when I discovered myself reading what felt like a low-tech fantasy story set in an Arabic world that included trolls, a talking cat, and magic swords.
I was half right in my expectation: the main character, Aristide, a retired genius computer scientist has decided to take a vacation of sorts that places him on just such a low-tech Arabic world. However, the troll happened to be a particular body type allowed by the predetermined world’s physics and biology; the talking cat turns out to be not just basically his best friend by the avatar of an artificial intellegence; and the magic sword happens to be a weapon that uses wormholes to dispatch foes.
The world itself that Aristide finds himself is a miracle of modern science, produced by manipulating the very structure of the Universe through sheer engineering. Many worlds like the one Aristide visits, in fact, exist in what are pocket universes, generated inside wormholes, and then tinkered with to develop the desired result of a tiny solar system (sometimes with a tiny star) and the necessary structures to sustain life. In this case, the land of Midgarth—a low-tech answer to the high-tech Singularity civilization that produced it—where the people within, all biological people, live out their live without direct access to the magical technology of the outer world.
All technology except for the Pool of Life. The Singularity civilization runs on a technology that is capable of reconstructing living people from elements constituent matter. Through this technology, all health problems and death have been solved. Visiting a Pool allows for a backup of a person to be made and should they die or fall ill; they need only visit a pool to be fully repaired or resurrected. This fact is central not just to the Singularity; but the cultural ills and fears that the external civilization that produced the wormholes has.
The first bit of history that the readers are introduced to is the Control Alt Delete War, an event perpetrated by a weapon or disease called the Seraphim. As a Singularity civilization, Aristide’s people don’t fear death; but they do fear the capability of artificial viruses taking away their free will. People who became sick with the Seraphim would fall asleep and wake up as zombies. Killing a person had little effect—they’d just lose a few days of time and possibly some memory until they could be regenerated from a Pool of Life. However, change their brain structure so that they were a different person have them backed up and viola a zombie comes back.
In the book, Aristide returns from his vacation because he and his talking cat friend—who is really the avatar of a powerful AI that his culture lives atop—return to a normal life in a vast, crawling city that is built atop the AI’s back. Her name is Endora and she’s one of 11 immensely powerful AI supercomputers that are partially built Matryoshka brains. In another life, Aristide happened to be one of the computer scientists who came up with their programming, so Endora gives him perks like the cat and his wormhole-generating sword. His vacation, really an attempt to give meaning to his life amid the resolution to everything, he discovers that people in Midgarth are being kidnapped by strange beings.
This opens up the plot of trying to discover why people in Midgarth are being kidnapped and it leads to fears of yet another crisis akin to that of the Control Alt Delete War.
After the initial shock of thinking I’d accidentally found an Arabic Swords & Sorcery story, I really found myself warming to a Sword & Singularity book. Implied Spaces provides just enough philosophy and to keep the fires burning and enough world building to generate an amazing civilization on the backs of immense AIs—while the book includes just enough science and engineering to make all of the technology work, but not enough to overwhelm the characters or the humanity of the story. In fact, the relationship between the humans and the AIs themselves becomes a moral question more than once.
Aristide has his own moral and emotional baggage as he unwinds the strange conspiracy that he accidentally discovered in the low-tech pocket universe of Midgarth. As Williams spins the story, he develops the characters nicely, telling their own stories through Aristide’s long life and history that gives a sense of place and culture to an amazing bit of world building. The novel even has enough action to make itself interesting to the military science fiction buffs—point in fact, there’s an entire chapter during which Aristide finds himself a soldier commanding a the very machines of warfare.
This story almost has something for everyone.
As a science fiction tale, it hits all the high points: technology, humanity, culture, and philosophy. It even reveals a villain driven by a particularly twisted form of philosophy that only a community that has gotten close to solving the very riddles of the Universe could find themselves falling victim to.
Plus, who can resist a well told science fiction story that incorporates a swordsman without being cheezy.