David J. Williams, The Mirrored Heavens (Bantam Spectra, 2008)
The Mirrored Heavens reads like a first person shooter plays, and coming from a professional video game developer, that's high praise indeed. David J. Williams' debut novel, a post-cyberpunk riot of shifting identities and allegiances, flat-out moves. Indeed, the book is at its best when the pace is the fastest, the bullets and bits are flying most furiously, and the fate of the world is in the hands of a few high-powered operatives who may not even know who -- or what -- they actually are.
At first glance, The Mirrored Heavens reads like archetypal cyberpunk. It's a dystopian future, there are hackers and street samurai (excuse me, razors and mechs) who alternately surf data "zones" and use powered suits and cybernetic enhancements to run roughshod over countless mookish enemies.
And yet, there's a key difference, one that's tied up in pace and style. One of the hallmarks of cyberpunk has always been that the hacking and combat sequences have always been carefully choreographed, artistic displays of virtuosity on the parts of both characters and writers. Not so Williams and his razors and mechs. When they get into it, it's messy. It's brutal. It's blurry. It's fast-paced and bloody and immensely violent, with no time to admire the artistry of a particular kill because there are so many bodies hitting the floor and so many bullets flying. It reads, in other words, like an exhilarating sequence of video game combat, fast moves and flying ordnance. Nor does Williams ever slow down once the pace picks up. To do so would have been a fatal mistake, reducing his characters to merely highly skilled and amped chess pieces. Instead, by turning their encounters into impressionistic blizzards of carnage, Williams leaves intact the impression of how superhumanly fast and powerful they are, indeed, how high up the exponential curve everything in his world is. If you can see it, you can dissect it. If you can't, you can just be impressed -- and maybe a little appalled -- by the results.
The plot of the book follows three separate sets of characters, an Operative of the US government, a razor-and-mech pairing of agents from one of the government ministries, and a European block spy and the former American agent who wants him to help him defect. The paths of the three groups weave around each other, starting at the takedown of an international space elevator and racing forward to what might just be the end of the world. If that's all there were to it, it would be a fascinating enough read, a twisty thriller of shifting loyalties and double-crosses. But Williams isn't content to let it go at that. It's not just the meat and the faces that are malleable in his world. It's all just data, and data -- physical data like your face, or personal data like your memories -- is just something that can be rewritten, overwritten, edited and replaced. Each of his characters initially thinks they're above that, that they're players in the game, but as they advance into the darkness of a plot that may mean the end of civilization, they realize that they're pieces on the board like everyone else. And if their memories and loyalties can be rewritten, then the question of whom they're fighting for, and why, becomes ever more important.
If there are weak spots in the book, they come when Williams lets the reader catch his breath and pick up some exposition. When the pace slows and the sentences get longer, The Mirrored Heavens falls back into more familiar territory. Thankfully, these passages don't last long before the jets kick in again. And once they do, that's all that matters.