Saturday, February 11, 2012

Five Books By Walter Jon Williams

Okay, I should say that when I first expressed interest in attending Taos Toolbox, the missus said, "Yes, that certainly sounds as if you'd be interested in attending." When I said, "Nancy Kress is teaching," she said, "You will attend."

I hesitate to list details, but I have it on good authority that this blog is going to be receiving a flood of traffic in the near future, and I've been advised to get it into some kind of active state. So I figured I'd try and share some of the love...

If you look in the blogroll to your right, you'll see a number of writers listed. Some of them are people who posted comments here and warmed my heart, some of them are people with whom I've worked or studied.

I had Walter Jon William's blog over there right from the start, long before I met him. It is a great pleasure to work with professional writers. It is a great pleasure to discover writers new to me by working with them. But of all the writers I've worked with, Williams is the only one who was, well, a bit of a hero to me. Taos Toolbox, the workshop he runs with Nancy Kress, is perfectly named -- you walk away from it with a full set of writer's tools. I went there with needs, and came back with those needs satisfied.

There was a long streak where Williams wrote exactly what I wanted to read, and it's hard to tell to what degree the changes in his writing influenced my own changing tastes in that time. He's one of my favorite authors, and to my mind one of the very best writers in SF. He's unquestionably the strongest long-form plotter I've read -- a master of narrative as character expressed in context, and a relentless craftsman. I think of crime fiction as the place to go for plot instruction, but Williams has got 'em all beat.

Look, I don't just read Williams. I loan Williams, and he is not returned. I've been through three copies of The Rift, and I do not currently own one. People don't give it back.

When I went to Taos Toolbox, my biggest fear was making an idiot out of myself for slavering all over one of my literary heroes. I think I got out of that mostly intact. Here's where I blow what little cool I displayed.

To my mind, Williams is an example of someone whose devotion to craftsmanship brings his work to the station of art. He can tell you exactly how and why he made any given creative choice; one of the signature tones of his work is complete authorial control. As the man said, trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle.

Here is my Walter Jon Williams reading list. You can find most of these titles here.


This is one of those novels whose old future resembles the recent past to an uncomfortable degree. This semi-romantic story of two semi-ethical criminals, one at the top of the pyramid and one at the bottom, features textbook-perfect action sequences decorated with wise-ass news flashes of a world in political, ecological, and economic collapse.

At the time of its appearance, the world was all het up on the subject of cyberpunk, but this had a different feel than much of what was being marketed under that rubrik. It was more solidly, professionally constructed, less adolescent. It was the work of a writer coming into his maturity rather than one stretching his wings for the first time, and as a result?

The son of a bitch still reads well.

The Voice of the Whirlwind

This is my favorite science-fiction action story. The plot? A cloned warrior solves the murder of his scion, himself. I love, love, love stories that start with the main character as a blank slate trying to discover himself, and this is a goodie, featuring cyberpunk filling in a space opera shell. And again, William's deft hand with characterization and politics makes it possible to eat what is essentially a candy bar without feeling guilty about it. Fun with fiber, as it were.

The real pleasure in this one is the plot. In terms of story mechanics, this is the best I know of. You can hear a distinct, satisfyingly solid click with every shift in events, the crisp snap of a card being turned over with every revelation of information. This is a great read, but writers should regard it as an object of study.

It is, it must be said, very much a boy book. That's okay by me.

Angel Station

This has, in some ways, a familiar feeling to it. Specifically, it has both the tone and some of the social/political vibe of a section of Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy. But Citizen of the Galaxy was an enjoyable mess, and this is, again, a solid piece of craftsmanship.

In this one, Williams sets a brother-and-sister pair of subsistence interstellar spaceship owners against their peers and the politics that dominate all their lives. There's a certain socio-economic situation he plays on extensively here -- the slowly-decaying shabby-but-decent life that may be suddenly snatched from you by forces beyond your control, struggling to hold onto something that may not be worth the effort because the alternatives are prostitution or the void.

That is the American working-class experience as space opera, my droogs. Heed it well.

Days of Atonement

Calling this book science fiction is goofy. Yes, there is an interesting, well-handled speculative element in the plot. It's a police procedural with strong noir elements, and the examination of the setting and the lead character are very dark, very steely, fascinating and convincing.

(Okay. When I was at Taos Toolbox, there was one occasion when Walter and I were in a grocery store. The person in front of us in line took twenty minutes to buy a six-pack, and because I'd read Days of Atonement? It didn't bug me -- that was just how things work there.)

While it would be a mistake to call his earlier work immature, with this book, Williams pulled up a chair at the grownup table. This work is more suitable for the general reader than one used to the pudding-and-gumdrop diet of genre fiction. In this book, Williams writes powerfully of life as he sees it without any tinsel or neon obscuring the event, and the result is a very good, fully mature novel.

The Rift

I'll say it flat-out. This should have been a Big Deal. It's Huckleberry Finn as a disaster movie, it deals with a genuinely threatening real-live situation -- I had flashbacks from this book while watching Katrina reports. It is intelligent, humane, morally engaged, beautifully crafted. Like Days of Atonement, it's mainstream or literary fiction rather than science fiction.

This one is an ensemble piece in which families and individuals deal with the results of a major earthquake along the Mississippi. Would you believe that issues of race become significant in the aftermath? Would you believe that they're handled intelligently?

When I told my family that I was going to study at Taos Toolbox, they said, "Oh, that's nice." When I said, "It's with the guy who wrote The Rift," they got excited. Voice of the Whirlwind is my favorite, Days of Atonement is the one I'm most impressed by as an artist, but this one? Should have been a fucking blockbuster.

So there we go. My first push to get the blog Active! in the face of my upcoming moment in the spotlight, and all it cost me was the ability to look Walter Jon Williams in the eye ever again. I hope it was worth it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Occupy Tintin

Tintin is copyright Herge! These images were taken from an underground publication, and used without permission. Their use here is in a non-commercial capacity.

Breaking Free is credited to J. Daniels. As if.

This blog has been a self-obsessed mopefest for quite some time. I've been trying to write something sensible on the subject of genre and literary fiction, and have been producing drivel. Let's try some other critical writing to get up to speed.

So here's my favorite volume of Tintin. I used to like the shooting star one because of the giant mushrooms and the spider and so on but in this one?

We can tell, Tintin. Everyone sees your boner.

Tintin is an unrepentantly vicious thug.

That's not all there is here, though. This is a genuinely fascinating volume. On one hand, you've got the crudely rendered ripoff of Herge. That's why this one is so hard to find -- this one move both made the volume immediately appealing and incredibly hard to distribute. On the other hand, the substance of the work is remarkably solid. This is not a case of shock for shock's sake. This is seriously intended literature. This is a practical guidebook for revolution.

Thatcher-era Britain. Tintin, a violent lowlife, gets caught up in a worker's revolution through his connection with Captain Haddock, a laborer and dedicated family man. Despite the crudity of the technical execution -- this is a classic example of cartooning as a practical rather than a creative art -- the story and characterization are well-done and effective, and skillfully interwoven with the story of the revolution. As a graphic novel, this is worth attention and study.

It's also a clear-eyed view of the politics of revolution, probably the best I've seen in fiction. While it blessedly eschews Marxist jargon, it follows the nuts-and-bolts of organizational work with real fidelity. The low-key, convincing dialog is a genuine pleasure, and the whole thing is grounded in a sense of community you don't find often in comics.

There are some union-related passages that startled me with their conviction and realism. And Tintin's growth as a person is convincingly lopsided and limited, and cleverly used as a means of demonstrating an ideology holding internal growth as being part of the revolutionary process.

The classism and violence are difficult to stomach at times. Let's be honest. My take on revolution? I don't want one, but if the possibility isn't on the horizon, we aren't going to see change. I'm one of those guys, figures Martin Luther King wouldn't have gotten nearly as far if if it hadn't been for Malcolm X.

So if my dad shows up one morning and says, "Get dressed. It's leg-breaking time," I'll be grumpy, but I'll go put on my leg-breaking pants. But I ain't starting anything because I don't have the stomach for it. Big, violent political movements always claim victims. You can't make an omelet without breaking legs.

Breaking Free makes it plain that revolution requires the willingness to force people to support your position. That change is going to be resisted by people who should embrace it, and that those people need to be goaded into the proper stance. And as I said, I don't have the stomach for that.

The ethics here are fascinating. Inside of one's social class, racism, sexism, and homophobia are to be opposed on principal, with the practical result of community solidarity. But anyone with too much income is not perceived as fully human. They are deserving receptacles for abuse and violence simply on the basis of their privilege. I have trouble demonizing the rich that way. I mean, I'm very practiced at it, I do it all the time, but I don't approve of it. Classism can resemble racism more closely than I feel comfortable with.

But despite my ideological differences, I found this an engaging and intelligent volume that succeeds both as a political work and as a story of character. I'm not a big fan of appropriated art, but in this case? Whoever did this was not an artist, or at least did not approach this job as art. This is commercial art used for revolutionary propaganda. What's not to love?