Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Autumn Rain trilogy, by David J. Williams

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

Originally published in STRANGE HORIZONS, October 25, 2010

The Mirrored Heavens. New York: Spectra, 2008, pp. 432.

The Burning Skies. New York: Spectra, 2009, pp. 416.

The Machinery of Light. New York: Spectra, 2010, pp. 432.

The "Autumn Rain" books (The Mirrored Heavens, 2008; The Burning Skies, 2009 The Machinery of Light, 2010) by David J. Williams are less a trilogy of novels than a single novel in three volumes. Set on an early twenty-second century Earth struggling with grueling resource scarcity, their focus is on the central international conflict of the time, which is carried on between a United States narrowly rescued from collapse by a military dictatorship on the one hand, and a "Eurasian" coalition led by Russia and China, and including the non-Russian former Soviet republics and the Korean peninsula, on the other. By the year 2110 these two powers, following a half century-long "Cold War," have divided most of the world between their camps, with the Western hemisphere American-dominated, and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa allied with Eurasia.

As Autumn Rain starts, the war has recently entered a phase of uneasy détente, marked by an agreement to jointly build and operate the Phoenix space elevator ("the wonder of the age" (p. 12)), and share the moon's territory and resources. However, both sides continue to police their spheres of influence, and Mirrored Heavens opens with an offensive by American forces against a rebellion in Latin America, through which he introduces his principal characters. "Razor" (hacker) Claire Haskell is participating in the cyberspace dimension of the operations, while exoskeleton-wearing "mech" (soldier) Jason Marlowe carries on the same fight with both old-fashioned and new-fangled firepower. Far overhead, another mech introduced as "the Operative"--whose name is later revealed to us as Strom Carson--is passing over Brazil, where the space elevator is sited, en route to the moon. This puts all of them at the scene when that elevator, still under construction, is destroyed in a massive terrorist attack that plays like a vastly scaled-up version of the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

This assault turns out to have been the work of the "Autumn Rain," posthumans with a radical agenda behind whom stands something still larger and more complex, though no one seems quite sure what. Naturally, Haskell, Marlowe and Carson are caught up in the intrigues that follow in the attack's aftermath, as is undercover agent Lyle Spencer, sucked into the vortex by a stranger, Seb Linehan, who knows more about him than he'd like and uses that information as irresistible leverage.

Other characters enter into and exit from the picture, introduced through their connections with Haskell, Marlowe and Carson--particularly Carson's own razor Stefan Lynx, and his old mentor Leo Sarmax, drawn back to duty as the crisis develops. Initially all of these figures are marginal to the larger events, getting only limited glimpses of the bigger game swirling far above their heads, but that game increasingly comes out in the open, while at the same time Williams's characters move closer and closer to its centre as conflicts erupt between and even transcending the superpowers, whose relations have been predictably undermined by the destruction of the elevator. In the second volume, leaders on both sides attempt to salvage the situation through a summit in orbital space but Autumn Rain turns up there again, mounting an even more massive assault than before.

The resulting megadeaths, and the still-rising tensions, feed succession crises on both sides of the conflict that propel aggressive elements to the fore, setting the stage for full-blown war across the Earth-moon system in The Machinery of Light. As the final volume opens Claire's exceptional computer warfare abilities have made her a potentially war-winning prize to the many different parties contending for solar system domination. Wanting no part of their plans she's gone on the run inside the U.S.'s moon colony, with Carson in pursuit. Meanwhile, Spencer and Sarmax are inside enemy territory back on Earth, hunting for another secret, potentially war-winning weapon, this one belonging to the Eurasians; and Linehan and Lynx are presumed dead after their assassination attempt on a rogue American military commander, Jharek Szilard, went bad at the end of Skies.

Many of Autumn Rain's endorsements have drawn attention to its similarities with cyberpunk, comparing Williams to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. There are certainly plenty of parallels to justify such a comparison: the cold, hard, noirish world of cold, hard, noirish loners navigating abstruse intrigues on Earth and in near-space; the hackers who use cranial jacks to access a visual, intuitive version of cyberspace, and are commonly teamed up with expert killers in the world of (often customized) flesh; the prominence of the trade in information itself; the division of the world's people between the extremes of poverty and privilege, with sleek ultramodern technology and shabby decay closely juxtaposed. While this is less well-remembered, it is also the case that world wars (nuclear ones included) were a common part of the milieu in cybperunk fiction, as in Gibson's "Sprawl" stories, John Shirley's Eclipse saga and Victor Milian's The Cybernetic Samurai.

However, the differences are equally worth noting. Not the least of these is that the story is set a hundred years from now, which is farther than most cyberpunk goes, and which implies a more restrained expectation with regard to technological change and proliferation. (It's apparent, certainly, that we didn't all vanish into the "Great Upload.")

Additionally, all the major characters inhabit an American security state in a world dominated by a superpower conflict, where '80s-era writers like Gibson and Sterling pictured the state fading away. Gibson may have written of World War III--but afterward there wasn't much of the superpowers left, even as modernity remained functional. However, the reality has been that states endured and actually grew in size, pervasiveness and intrusiveness in the years since, and proved time and again that they are indispensable even to the survival of the corporations supposedly poised to take over from them. In this respect Williams is closer in outlook to more recent writers like Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow.

There is also a great deal of Golden Age glitter among the cyberpunk trappings--laser and missile-firing commandos zipping through the sky on the power of their jetpacks; elaborately interconnected, kilometer-high buildings; high-speed trains traveling in underground tunnels spanning the Atlantic; space prospectors adventuring among the gas giants as giant colonization ships are prepped for voyages into deep space. There are Golden Age fears, too, like an exploding world population, or a Chinese or Russian military conquest of the United States (interwoven with newer concerns like global warming and peak oil).

It is worth noting that Autumn Rain is structured as a hyperviolent thrill ride above all else, an approach few of the cyberpunks attempted. The difference is clear both structurally and at the sentence level. Many of the canonical cyberpunks offered an ostentatious imagism and surrealism, but Williams's writing is plainer stuff, dominated by short, punchy sentences (and often, sentence fragments) written in the present tense, as with the description of Claire at the start of the battle, contemplating the scene through her "optical enhancements":
She shouldn't be this close to the battle. Not physically, at any rate. She's a razor. She's supposed to sit back and work the wires from afar. She's not supposed to be thrust into a live war zone. As if on cue, more things surface within her. More pieces of her purpose. She marvels at the spaces they fill (p. 13).
The narrative is marked, too, by Williams's rapid intercutting between his various storylines, with the beginnings and endings of his scenes often worded so that one scene flows into another, a question asked by one of the characters here answered over there.

This makes for rapid pacing, but it also demands close attention, especially where the plotting or action gets intricate, which is often. The action sequences are often reminiscent of movies where the hero is an unstoppable killing machine effortlessly mowing down scores of hapless opponents who literally can't shoot straight to save their lives (indeed, Williams acknowledges in his list of influences at the back of The Burning Skies "anything starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s" (p. 401)), or better still, video games, especially where his mechs maneuver through complex environments that could have come right out of a first-person shooter.1

At the same time, Williams keeps cranking out subplots and twists--a new alliance, a betrayal, the revelation of some hidden agenda or other secret--which likewise contribute to the pace. There are some big questions running through it all--"Where did the Rain come from?" and "What is the truth about Claire Haskell's past?" in particular--but many of the twists are simply sprung on the characters and the reader, rather than capping off a build-up; the story carried more by speed, spectacle and periodic shocks than the careful cultivation of suspense, and while the satisfaction of a big payoff is rare, this enhances the feeling of being in a genuinely unpredictable situation where anything might happen.

I was very impressed by how long and how well Williams sustained his effects with this approach. The sequence depicting the attack on the space elevator with which Mirrored Heavens opens, which runs ninety pages from start to finish, would be a showstopping climax in just about any other book, and a very tough one to pull off too. Reading it I kept expecting it to collapse in incoherence, exhaustion or both, but not only did it hold my attention, it grew only more engaging (and ultimately, enthralling) as it went along. Even after it was over, the action kept on coming thick and fast, and the narrative held my attention until the last page of Heavens.

Nonetheless, the performance falters in places; most notably, the narrative gets thoroughly bogged down in Burning Skies. Williams over-reaches in his pursuit of bigger and better action, allowing the first two-thirds of the book to be swallowed up entirely by the fight on the neutral Europa space station used by the Americans. While I was periodically engaged by a bit of sheer spectacle, or some new plot development, even as a long-time techno-thriller reader I felt myself swamped and wearied by the sheer intricacy of detail in which he described the fighting inside the station's hyper-complicated environment for the two hundred-plus pages it ran. I was actually tempted to give up on it, and was relieved when the flow picked up again in the last third of the book, and continued in the final installment, The Machinery of Light (in which the pace actually accelerates, to the point that there are long stretches with three scene breaks per page, and the earlier, highly involved set-pieces are supplanted by short bursts of violence).

Besides marring the books' flow in places, Williams' emphasis on action is not easily reconciled with strong characterization, and this aspect of the books admittedly suffers. He does give his leads distinguishing bits of background and personality that at times do matter to the plot rather than appearing as simple dressing-up--Linehan stands out as an amoral psychotic even in some extreme company, Sarmax has a tragic romance in his past, and so forth. Nonetheless, at a glance many of the principals are close to indistinguishable and often interchangeable, their terse "tough guy" dialogue tending to sound all alike, and only close attention keeps the reader from regularly confusing the characters with one another. Even the storyline where Williams has done the most to give us a story, namely that of Claire Haskell, suffers from character development which is thin rather than subtle (though this improves somewhat as the books proceed).

Additionally, large-scale as Williams's world-building is, the socio-political side of it never quite arrested me with its verisimilitude, or its ingenuity. This was frankly a bit of a letdown given that a fair amount of the publicity sold this as one of the book's strengths. The world of Autumn Rain struck me as simply an aggressive reading of the near-future bumped a hundred years forward, with a good bit of the old Cold War and the massive-scale industrial warfare of World War II (and the World War III that never happened) tossed in.

Of course, it is standard for writers to draw on the present and the past in this way, but they do so in different ways and with varying degrees of skill. Here Williams seems to have forced his world-building to accommodate the book's action, as a result of which it included a great many unconvincing details. The twenty-first century population explosion Williams describes, for instance, seems more like a convenience for avoiding the demographic changes that would complicate the geopolitical design of his world (by shifting political and military power away from his three contending powers, by reducing the supply of military-age cannon fodder for implementing the strategies seen in the book, etc.). At the same time he offers few clues as to how that demographic explosion could have been accommodated in a resource-starved world--let alone how his superpowers retained the wherewithal for staggering arms races and space development schemes in the face of such eco-catastrophe.

Given that the Cold War came down to the U.S. acting as an offshore balancer against the Soviets in Eurasia, partnering with allies in Western Europe, the Middle East and East Asia to check their moves, I was also left wondering how a new Cold War could have been fought when there was no Eurasian balance to facilitate such a strategy. (After all, everyone in Eurasia--and Africa as well--is either part of the Eurasians' alliance system or a neutral they have "Finlandized" like India, which the long-running logic--given its classic expression in Halford Mackinder's Democratic Ideals and Reality--has held would result in such a preponderance of force on behalf of the Eurasians as to end any such game. The U.S. apparently got to the moon first in Williams's timeline, but it's not clear how or even if this provided a compensating leverage.)

Such questions aside (and I can go on asking them for quite a while), I would have liked to see more of twenty-second century Earth outside the claustrophobically narrow thought-world of Autumn Rain's protagonists. Of course, the argument could be made that in this hyper-militarized dystopia nothing exists outside the security states dominating the planet, but still most people must be doing something besides scheming and shooting, and even the schemers and shooters must do and think about other things from time to time. At any rate, I'm not sure how well the book works as the kind of critique that would really make it effective as dystopian literature. Insight into how the nightmare came to pass is essential for this, and for all the characters' hard-bitten cynicism about the system they work for that seems to be lacking, with one particularly noticeable gap the inadequate development of the Eurasians. Up to the end they are a virtually faceless and barely human "Enemy" perhaps even more one-dimensional than the clichés of Cold War-era propaganda which apparently inspired them.

Likewise, the technological speculation appealed to me with its grandiosity, but those looking for the futurological rigor the glowing endorsements of the books promise would be disappointed. While Williams has done his homework with regard to some of the thinking on space warfare (for instance, in his treatment of LaGrange points as strategic prizes), the Golden Age indulgences are as unpersuasive as they are spectacular, and it's nothing next to what comes later, Williams going beyond his more plausible-sounding extrapolation to the tropes one expects in tales of galactic empire, and, in Machinery of Light, even cosmic stuff with the blurry line between scientific cosmology and New Age-y metaphysics proving crucial to the conclusion as a host of miracles suddenly come out of the box. As I finish this review I'm still undecided as to whether the finale was a brilliant cap to a story that kept getting bigger and wilder up to the point that the whole of existence is involved, or marked its final unraveling, Williams getting out of the corner he had written himself into by yanking a God out of the machine to provide a resolution. I'd like to think the former, but I have my doubts, and I suppose that uncertainty encapsulates how I feel about the novel. Virtually no writer I can think of can compare with Williams for pure adrenaline, and there are certainly impressive feats of imagination and plotting throughout, but the aspects of the book that don't work nearly so well (those aforementioned shortcomings in character, world-building and structure) are too significant to make Autumn Rain really successful as much more than that.

1. Indeed, Williams worked in video games before penning the books. He has notably been credited with the storyline of the Homeworld series, and those interested in a deep reading of this aspect of the books might check out University of Toronto Professor Mike Johnstone's lengthy blog post about the first book.

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