May 24 2011 10:10am

Surpassing humanity: Walter Jon Williams Aristoi

Walter Jon Williams’s Aristoi (1992) is one of those books like Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall (post) that is about the possibility of changing your mind. Literally. It’s about the possibilities opened up when we aren’t limited to the human mind. Aristoi posits nanotech, in-brain implants, virtual realities, and techniques of advanced consciousness creating sub-personalities who can operate independently, daimones. The world—worlds, for though Earth was destroyed by runaway “mataglap” nano, there are now lots of other terraformed and colonized worlds—is divided into the demos, ordinary people, the Therapontes, those who aspire to become Aristoi, and the Aristoi themselves, the best and brightest among humanity, rulers of worlds, makers of laws, controllers of nanotech. They rule their domains absolutely, but immigration between domains is free, so the odder ones tend to lose population.

Aristoi is a cleverly constructed utopia, and has the main problem of utopias, which is that it can be challenging to find a plot other than “look at my beautiful garden.” The first half of the book is essentially “beautiful garden” and the second half develops a plot that doesn’t really work. But since the garden is in this case so very interesting and the view of humanity is so unusual, it actually doesn’t matter. This is not a book I come back to for the plot. It’s a book I come back to because Williams wrote about people becoming more than human and almost made it work.

I think this book is among the best that Williams has written, and it seems to me one of those books that everybody should have read—but of course it isn’t. It came out in a very strong year, 1992, and didn’t get any award love, and it didn’t ever become a major novel. So I’m going to talk about it on the assumption that you probably haven’t read it but might be persuaded to seek it out. It isn’t a perfect book. The word I keep coming back to talking about it is “interesting.” It’s science fictionally interesting, it’s ambitious, its reach is exceeding its grasp and yet it keeps on reaching. It’s the kind of book that gives you chewy things to think about.

Although this is one of Williams’ best books, it’s not my favourite. I tend to enjoy reading his others much more. This is because when it comes down to it it’s characters I care about, and our protagonist here, Gabriel Aristos, is a jerk. He’s smug and decadent and just too perfect, and when he is brought down to the level of humanity he’s then whining and pathetic. I don’t care for him. I don’t like his subpersonalities either. And most of all I hate his habit of thinking he can fix everything, but everything right for everybody—himself, personally. He really does think he’s God—and that’s part of Williams’s achievement, because he really does, and it’s been pretty much true. And it’s perfectly reasonable that somebody like that would be like Gabriel. But I don’t like him. The utopias that work for me are all from the point of view of somebody who is unhappy there. Gabriel is perfectly happy, perfectly fulfilled. I’m actually glad when he has to face something he knows he can’t fix—but it doesn’t bring him growth as a character, far from it, he just wants to fix humanity so that nobody has to be human any more.

The Aristoi rise by learning, creating daimons and passing exams, they rule through having all the power, and through “mudras,” positions of dominance that act on people’s subconsciouses to make them obey. There are other nice touches in the description of the virtual reality, especially when the Aristoi are showing off for each other. Williams makes them convincingly astonishing—writing symphonies and poetry, designing planets, advancing science. These are people who are at the level of Leonardo, and this does work.

One thing I don’t like—messing about with typography to represent two things going on at once. This “split screen” page doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t feel like simultaneity, it interrupts my natural reading flow and drives me mad. I wish he hadn’t done it. I can see what he wanted to do and I understand why he did it. I just don’t like it.

I already mentioned the utopian weakness of plot—there’s a mystery, and exploring the mystery is more interesting than the way it is resolved. Having said that, it’s a plus that I find the plot forgettable, it means I forget it and so it’s new every time.

What Williams has achieved here is making a world that isn’t like anything in history and which feels like a plausible decadant post-scarcity post-human future. He also does very well for the tech still seeming futuristic—which for a 1992 novel is impressive.

The natural comparison on “better living through split personality” is Bujold’s Mirror Dance (post). In Mirror Dance the protagonists are driven by circumstances to make subpersonalities to help them cope. In Aristoi everyone is doing it on purpose. Split personalities are generally seen as a bad thing, but both of these books treat them surprisingly positively.

Aristoi isn’t in print, but I hear that Walter Jon Williams may be releasing it as an e-book soon, along with some other books of his like Angel Station (post) and Knight Moves (post).

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. kabdib
_Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone_ is Ian McDonald, but it's an interesting comparison (and an excellent read as well).

I got bogged down in Aristoi's first few chapters several times before I powered through them and things got interesting. I like Williams' protrayal of tech, and how the "gods" get in over their heads.
Nancy Lebovitz
2. NancyLebovitz
I enjoyed the novel, but I never believed that even enhanced individuals have the capacity to run nanotech societies. The decisions are much too complex.

IIRC, you never see ordinary people from the societies-- the lowest status shown is students working on being Aristoi.
3. James R
I loved this novel; it's always stuck with me.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Nancy: You only see the Demos as crowds and the little boy with the sickness and so on.
5. Henry Farrell
I thought the book was an interesting experiment, but a failed one. The plot - as you say - wasn't up to much, but the sociological stuff didn't quite click either. I think Williams' portrayal of a Gabriel-figure from the outside in _Metropolitan_ and _City on Fire_ is much better - and the books benefit from their depiction of a genuinely interesting and complicated main character, who changes in important ways (would love to see the projected third book come out one of these days).
Emmet O'Brien
6. EmmetAOBrien
I always read this book as a deliberate illustration of the plot limitations imposed by a Utopia; I think the second half having a plot that would barely hold up a Fu Manchu novel is intentional on WJW's part.

I also found the split-page thing didn't quite work, but was fascinating.
David Gordon
7. dmg
"Although this is one of Williams’ best books, it’s not my favourite."

Far be it for me to tell you which books to review, Jo, but I find it interesting and notable that you feature a good book but no favorite rather than an excellent book also a favorite.

Only you read as rapidly as you do; I must select carefully for my reading time. And the bulk of my reading is not SF, as much as I enjoy it, because it obeys Sturgeon's Law. I prefer to seek the books I must read...

Walter is largely a mid-list author whose career was (still is?) threatened with death from neglect - from publishers who wrote off his career and readers who had not discovered him, and now likely would not. Your post goes a long way to serving a wake-up call to readers... and publishers.

So which book IS your favorite? And will you write a review of Michael Moorcock's oeuvre? (See there I go guiding your review topics. Sorry! :-)
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
DMG: I have already reviewed quite a lot of my favourite Williams books, use the search box -- Knight Moves, Angel Station, the Dread Empire's Fall books and This is Not a Game.

I don't much care for most of Moorcock though, sorry.
David Gordon
9. dmg
I have come to trust your instinct and voice, Jo, so perhaps you have a website or blog at which you limn, in detail and otherwise - but collected in one spot - your favorites. Not just any book, mind you, but the absolute must-reads in and out of genre. (And you could even explain the blank spaces when they crop up, such as Moor - Moos! :-)

You read so much that, despite your frequent re-reads, certain books scream at you: "Read me again! And tell other people to read me the first time!" Hmm, a real labor of love, I request. But hey, when can beggars not be choosers? :-)
Karen Lofstrom
11. DPZora
The split personalities schtick pisses me off because it's hitchhiking on a psychological fad (diagnoses of MPD or DID ) which did immense harm in the real world. Do y'all remember Satanic ritual abuse panics?

Some shrinks still believe in DID, but others point out that it's a cultural phenomenon. Spread in the Anglosphere through media attention and networking among shrinks and patients. Not found in other populations. There's probably something there; the "I am not the ordinary me right now" self-presentation is extremely widespread, as shamanism. But the current packaging is heavily culturally determined
Michael Grosberg
12. Michael_GR
I liked it that Gabriel had a mother who was still around. So often are SF/F heros orphans, you forget having a mom is the norm. And to be a god and still have mom hanging uncomfortably around... You never think of a Zelazny god figure as having one!
Lawrence Hardin
13. lawrencehardin
This was a book that I started, then laid aside when reading it seemed like woerk, not fun. So for years it stayed in the rear row of paperbacks near the top of my book shelf. Then about 5 years ago I read an interview in which Walter Jon Williams described it as one of his favorites. So I read it. Eventually I started to enjoy it as I read into it, but after I finished it I did not feel like rereading it. I could see that it required immense effort and care on the part of the author. He can rightfully feel proud of the craftmanship and effort expended. Unfortunately, I think that most readers will enjoy his other, easier, novels much more.
Andrew Love
14. AndyLove
I really enjoyed Aristoi and it got me to read a lot of Williams - I've always been impressed by his range - from far-future stuff like Aristoi, to very-near future novels like Days of Atonement and This is Not A Game, grim gritty futures like Angel Station and comedy of manners futures like The Crown Jewels.
Bob Blough
15. Bob
I admit that I have not read this book, but your review reminded me of "Multiples" by Robert Silverberg from 1984, I think, with multiple personalities being sought after by the future youth culture.

It also reminded me of The Golden Age trilogy by John C. Wright.

I think Williams is one of the fields preeminent short fiction writers (try The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories from last year - sheer bliss), but I have never enjoyed his novels as much. But then I've only read three or four. I'll have to try some of your favorites, Jo.
16. Lil Shepherd
I must admit that my reaction to Aristoi was very much a sort of disconnected unbelief. I really did not believe in the benevolent nanotech, and I still don't. On the other hand, the book has stayed with me as much of Williams has not, except for his Zelaznyesque Voice of the Whirlwind.
17. TomNTom
Personally, I found Aristoi dazzling-tons of invention! One note on terminology: "oneirochronon" (virtual reality) seems to translate as "dreamtime"-an interesting and suggestive word.

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