New Treasures: The Best of Walter Jon Williams

New Treasures: The Best of Walter Jon Williams

The Best of Walter Jon Williams (Subterranean Press, February 28, 2021). Cover by Lee Moyer

Walter Jon Williams began his writing career in the early 80s designing games for Fantasy Games Unlimited, most notably the Age of Fighting Sail role playing game Privateers and Gentlemen (1983). He had more success with science fiction in the following years, and his work — especially his novellas, which he’s justly famous for — have been nominated for numerous awards. With The Best of Walter Jon Williams, Subterranean Press has produced one of the most important collections of the year, gathering the most vital work of one of the most successful short fiction writers in the field. Here’s the jacket copy.

With the publication of his debut novel, The Privateer, in 1981, Walter Jon Williams began one of the most varied and prolific careers in contemporary popular fiction. His work encompasses cyberpunk (Hardwired), military SF (The Dread Empire’s Fall series), humor (The Crown Jewels), even disaster fiction (The Rift). But much of Williams’s best work takes place in the shorter forms, as this generous volume, filled to overflowing with award-winning and award-nominated stories, clearly proves.

With one exception, The Best of Walter Jon Williams reflects its author’s affection for — and mastery of — the novella form. That exception is “The Millennium Party,” a brief, brilliant account of a virtual anniversary celebration unlike any you have ever imagined. Elsewhere in the collection, Williams offers us one brilliantly sustained creation after another. The Nebula Award-winning “Daddy’s World” takes us into a young boy’s private universe, a world of seeming miracles that conceals a tragic secret. “Dinosaurs” is the far future account of the incredibly destructive relationship between the star-faring human race and the less evolved inhabitants of the planet Shar.

“Diamonds from Tequila” is a lovingly crafted example of SF Noir in which a former child actor attempts a comeback that proves unexpectedly dangerous. “Surfacing” is a tale of alienation featuring a research scientist more at home with the foreign and unfamiliar than with the members of his own species. Finally, the magisterial “Wall, Stone, Craft” offers a brilliantly realized alternate take on a young Mary Godwin, future creator of Frankenstein, and her relationships with the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, culminating in the creation of a monster who would “stalk through the hearts of all the world.”

These stories, together with half a dozen equally substantial tales, are the clear product of a master craftsman with a seemingly limitless imagination.

The Best of Walter Jon Williams contains eleven novellas and one short story, plus an introduction by Daniel Abraham (one half of the joint-pseudonym James S.A. Corey), and Williams’ extensive Story Notes (13 pages). Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

Table of Contents:

Introduction by Daniel Abraham
“Daddy’s World”
“The Golden Age”
“Video Star”
“The Millennium Party”
“The Bad Twin”
“The Green Leopard Plague”
“Diamonds from Tequila”
“Prayers on the Wind”
“Wall, Stone, Craft”
Story Notes

Notices for the book have been excellent; here’s an excerpt from the Publishers Weekly review, quoted on the back cover:

Best-known for space operas, Williams (Fleet Elements) showcases his versatility in this impressive collection of 12 stories, whose wide-ranging subjects include a superhero-supervillain battle in the Old West (‘The Golden Age’) and a moving account of a child who learns that his world isn’t what he believed it to be (‘Daddy’s World’)… Across every entry, Williams displays his superior prose, an ability to craft well-rounded worlds, and a facility for creating engagement and empathy in readers, whether for a recognizable human character or an alien intelligence. This stellar volume should grow Williams’s devoted fan base.

But my favorite review (so far) is Paul Di Filippo’s detailed coverage at Locus Online. Here’s an excerpt:

In stark contrast comes the rip-snortin’, ring-tailed-roarer rambunctiousness of “The Golden Age”, a quasi-steampunk story which interjects proto-superheroes into the California Gold Rush. Our narrator is a Bad Guy with a tender heart and certain refined sensibilities — the Commodore — and his nemesis is the Condor, not altogether sane. Together, like Batman and the Joker, they tussle up and down the state, until forced to unite to face a perfidious Austrian airship invasion. Never descending into farce, these larger-than-life adventures evoke the pathos beneath the brawling.

Like some joint effort by David Bunch and Neal Barrett, “Dinosaurs” chronicles the negotiations between Drill, an emissary of our mighty posthuman descendants, and an alien race called the Shar. Humanity’s automated terraforming ships have inadvertently wiped out billions of Shar, and it’s Drill’s task to restore justice. The immense pleasures of this tale come from Williams’s startling portrayal of Drill’s posthuman worldview versus the more commonplace attitudes of the Shar. The subsequent flipping of the standard equation — Drill the ostensible human is more alien than the aliens, who are more like us, the readers — is a nifty performance.

“Surfacing” concerns the researches of a lonely man named Anthony Maldalena on an exotic world under two suns. There he cruises the wide oceans, studying the imported terrestrial whales of these seas and the other native race of Deep Dwellers. When a young woman named Philana Telander enters his life, he is forced to open up and confront the contorted dimensions of his own existence. But the additional presence of an alien observer named Telamon complicates matters considerably. Picture all this conveyed in a manner reminiscent of Zelazny seasoned with Ballard….

Still working today wholeheartedly at the apex of his abilities, Williams has persevered through the ups and downs typical of most writers (revealed in his generous Story Notes) to accumulate a corpus of work that stands on the same victor’s platform as many of his illustrious predecessors and also with the best of his peers. He’s done his — our — generation proud.

The Best of Walter Jon Williams was published by Subterrenean Press on February 28, 2021. It was published in a limited edition of 1,000 signed numbered hardcover copies, so if you’re interested in one, you might want to hurry. It is 609 pages, priced at $45 in hardcover. There is no paperback or digital edition. The cover is by Lee Moyer; get more details at the Subterranean website.

See all our recent coverage of Walter Jon Williams here, and all our New Treasures here.

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