Oct 20 2008 5:08pm

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.

Oscar Nelson
1. oscar.nelson
I recently re-read this as well and also noticed the similarity to Zelazny, specifically This Immortal with which it shares a very similar setting.
Cassie Ammerman
2. leanoir
I'm a big fan of Zelazny, but I've never read anything by Williams before. Thanks for the great suggestion!
ennead ennead
3. ennead
I like your reviews and suggestions so much that my Amazon basket is exploding.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Ennead: Oh good! I mean, that's the plan. Let's get everyone to read all my favourite books, bwa ha ha.
5. jlarke
Thanks for mentioning Walter Jon Williams to this audience. I discovered him many, many years ago in high school, when I thought the cover to Voice of the Whirlwind looked cool. Unlike most genre books, the prose outdid the cover, and now he's one of the authors whose hardcovers I preorder as soon as I hear about them.
Carl Rigney
6. cdr
Now you've made me want to reread Knight Moves, too.

Pleasingly, Night Shade Books is bringing many of Williams' old books back into print, including Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind. Yum!
Michael Grosberg
7. Michael_GR
Williams is one of my trio of favorite authors. Thanks for mentioning him. This is one of his books that explores a common SFnal theme - in this case, immortality - but from a cynical, jaded point of view. Williams did the same for uploading in _Daddy's World_ and first contact with an advanced civilization in _Ambassador o Progress_ and _Dinosaurs_.
Blue Tyson
8. BlueTyson
Yes, he certainly has a bunch of great short stories to go along with the cool novels.
Sandi Kallas
9. Sandikal
I read "Aristoi" many, many, many years ago and was very impressed. I read the first volume of "Dread Empire's Fall" a couple of years ago for a book group. Unfortunately, when I went to read the rest of the series, I picked up the third book instead of the second book. I didn't realize it until I was done reading it. I thought there was a lot of information I should have had but was missing. I didn't bother reading the second volume.

I read "The Rift" last year and recommended it to everyone. I thought the background of the 19th Century quake in Missouri was fascinating and I loved how the story followed "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." As a Californian and the mother of a geophysics/space physics major, the whole earthquake thing really interested me.

I'm going to keep my eyes open for "Knight Moves".
Martin Wisse
10. Martin_Wisse
The trouble with the Zelazny I really like is that I’ve read them so many times I’m starting to get them memorized.

Which is why I try to ration my unread Zelazny to one a year or so.

Williams is also one of my favourite authors, largely discovered through recommendations of the old rec.arts.sf.written crowd. He's the kind of writer where you can pick up any of his books and know it'll be excellent, but you don't know what kind of book you'll be getting.
11. DensityDuck
As I pointed out over on Williams's site, the reason he hasn't gotten famous is that his books have a tragic lack of gay vampires. If only he would write some stories about gay vampires he'd be the new hot ticket.

Also he needs to be a product-placement whore like Gibson.
12. Randal Trimmer
For pure fun my favorite Williams are the Drake Maijstral books.
Blue Tyson
13. BlueTyson
I just started Implied Spaces. Read about 25%. Certainly great so far.

Trolls, ogres, black priests, desert bandit skirmishes, talking cats, matrioshka brains, pod people, reincarnation, gender switching.

No gay vampires though (yet).

14. Iain Nicholas Mackenzie
Thank you for recommending this! I just bought it off iBooks and have already read several chapters. You are indeed correct that it reads like really good Zelazny, say Isle of The Dead or This Immortal.

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