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Birthday Reviews: Walter Jon Williams’s “The Fate Line”

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Bob Eggleton

Cover by Bob Eggleton

Walter Jon Williams was born on October 215, 1953

Williams received the Nebula Award for best novelette in 2001 for “Daddy’s World” and for novella in 2005 for “The Green Leopard Plague.” In 1997 he won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History for his story “Foreign Devils.” His works have also been nominated for the Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award, Philip K. Dick Award, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.

“The Fate Line” was published in the Fred Saberhagen festschrift Golden Reflections in 2011, edited by Robert E. Vardeman and Joan Spicci Saberhagen. The story is set in the same universe as Saberhagen’s 1979 novel The Mask of the Sun and has not been reprinted.

Williams take on the setting is one of constantly shifting expectations. It opens with Perseus, the illegitimate son of one of the Ptolemaic pharaohs, plundering a tomb at the orders of his half-brother, the Pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes, in order to find the wealth needed to fight the rebels and foreigners who threatened the dynasty. Perseus worries that both success or failure would bring about his own death, but when he found the immeasurable wealth of Ahmose, the founder of the eighteenth dynasty, he began to see a way out of his dilemma.

Williams quickly shifts the focus to Demetrios, a disentimed soldier who is working for the Quechuans of The Mask of the Sun in their time-war against the Tenocha. In one of the timelines, Cuzco-81, there is an Egyptian empire that threatens the Quechuans and Demetrios and a team are sent back in time to stop the Ptolemaic dynasty from establishing a foothold that lasts thousands of years. The team suffers almost instant failure when Demetrios meets Elpidos, a man who has knowledge about Demetrios, but who can’t share too much. Demetrios does realize that if he intends any harm to Ptolemy, the pharaoh will learn of it and Demetrios will fail.

Unable to return to his own time and knowing that his mission is stymied, Demetrios tries to figure out how to best establish himself in ancient Alexandria. Taking inspiration from his aunt, he sets himself up as a cheiromancer. When his predictions come true, he draws the attention of those close to the court and is eventually able to learn the secret of Ptolemy’s great luck, which ties in to Saberhagen’s novel, and come up with a way to siderail the timeline’s history without doing anything to harm the king.

Williams sets up a complex story with a difficult problem for his protagonist to resolve with limited resources. While Demetrios’ solution seems random and doesn’t appear to forward his agenda, once Williams begins to resolve the story, everything falls neatly into place, demonstrating excellent plotting. The story is enjoyable and makes the reader want to (re-)read Saberhagen’s original story to explore the linkages.

Reviewed in its original appearance in the anthology Golden Reflections, edited by Robert E. Vardeman and Joan Spicci Saberhagen, Baen Books, 2011.


Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

4 Comments »

  1. No Willy Ley?

    No Patricia Fanthorpe? (Now that it has been decided she was Lionel’s collaborator.)

    (Also Philip Harbottle, Vernor Vinge, Jean Mark Gawron.)

    Also, of course, Wallace Stevens. After all, he got at least two Retro-Hugo nominations this year (from John Hertz and myself).

    Comment by Rich Horton - October 2, 2018 7:12 am

  2. It looks like I had Walter listed on the wrong date. His birthday isn’t until the middle of the month…With luck, I’ll have another review up later today to celebrate someone with an actual October 2 birthday.

    Comment by Steven H Silver - October 2, 2018 9:54 am

  3. I vote Vernor Vinge!

    Comment by John ONeill - October 2, 2018 10:25 am

  4. The winner wound up being Edward Wellen.

    Comment by Steven H Silver - October 2, 2018 11:56 am


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