Centaur songs and scientific revolutions: Walter Jon Williams’ Knight Moves

I keep my books in alphabetical order by author. A-O are in here, and P-Z and non-fiction are in the sitting room. When I walked over to the sitting room yesterday afternoon I was heading right for the end of the alphabet. I wanted to re-read some Zelazny. But what I brought back to my study was Walter Jon Williams’ Knight Moves.

The trouble with the Zelazny I really like is that I’ve read them so many times I’m starting to get them memorized. If you gave me the first half of a sentence from Isle of the Dead or This Immortal, I could give you the second half. That makes them hard to sit down and read. And early Williams (Knight Moves is very early Williams, 1985) is very like that kind of Zelazny. It doesn’t quite have the lyricism of Zelazny’s prose, but on the other hand it’s longer and has a much more coherent and satisfying plot. I remember being struck by its Zelazny-like nature the very first time I read it, on a train between Lancaster and Carlisle in 1986. It scratches my Zelazny itch pretty well.

Williams is a remarkably underrated writer. He’s amazingly versatile and he’s never written the same book twice. He has touched pretty much every sub-genre of SF from cyberpunk (Hardwired) to space opera (Dread Empire’s Fall) with some ambitious post-human speculation (Aristoi), singularity sword-and-sorcery (Implied Spaces), alternate history (lots of short work), and even an outright near future disaster novel (The Rift), notable for being the only disaster novel I’ve ever read where things are nicer than the real world. I’ve been reading him enthusiastically and buying every book he’s written since I fell in love with Knight Moves on that long ago train. I’ve been expecting him to become a bestseller at any moment with a big breakout book, but it never quite happens. He keeps on writing one brilliant fascinating book after another without ever quite becoming a star. I don’t understand it.

Knight Moves is about Doran Falkner, a man who sees himself as Faust but who has caused two revolutions in science and the fate of humanity, and causes a third in the course of the novel. (Fantasies of political agency? Well, yeah.) He has a lovely ironic first person voice, very Zelazny, not a bit Chandler. Humanity has settled a sphere of stars easily reached with cold sleep and is settling in to decadence and stagnation. Most people take immortality treatments, but some, including Doran’s once-and-future lover, Mary, are Diehards, refusing to extend their lives. The temple at Delphi, where Doran lives, is surrounded by centaurs singing in Ancient Greek. (I love their lyrics.) There’s a mysterious alien who is excavating Earth. And on an insignificant planet some unpleasant uninteresting ungulates are being teleported…

It isn’t Zelazny. It isn’t Williams’s best work. But it’s a ton of fun all the same. It’s a lovely book to re-read curled up in a comfy chair on an autumnal Sunday afternoon.

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