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The Green Leopard Plague by Walter Jon Williams

I’m a simple kinda guy. Except, of course, I’m not. But it’s fun to start off these reviews with something vaguely provocative, just to get everyone’s creative juices flowing. In a site headed, “Thinking about books” my approach to reading is “simple”. Eyes scan the letters, the brain engages and converts the letters into words, I attribute meaning to the words and we repeat until the end of the book. For me, the book should stand or fall on its own merits. It’s rather like going into a fine-dining restaurant and then being afraid to complain that the food tastes like shit because you heard the chef has the maximum number of Michelin stars. No matter what the reputation of the kitchen, you can go in on a Monday evening and find a sous chef asleep at the wheel.

So I’m starting off this review of The Green Leopard Plague, a collection by Walter Jon Williams (published by Night Shade Books), by talking about the third story, “The Last Ride of German Freddie”. When I was younger, I paid to see Gunfight at the OK Corral starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. This is my only source of knowledge about the events leading up to the notorious shootout. I therefore read this story with increasing bewilderment. Allowing for Hollywood being somewhat economical with the truth for the sake of dramatic effect, I had no recollection of Friedrich Nietzsche being involved. Worse, I have never read anything written by Nietzsche. For all I have dabbled with philosophy over the years, the notion of the Übermensch has never interested me enough to actually read about it. I was therefore somewhat irked upon arriving at the end of the story to discover that only those who can identify this as alternate history and know enough about Nietzsche’s writing to appreciate the pastiche, can appreciate the quality of this work. In my conception of reality, a story stands or falls on what is written and, to me, this is a boring reconstruction of events more than 130 years in an unreal past. Fiction is fiction, but it’s supposed to be entertaining or have some point that is obvious to all who read it. An author setting out to tell a story should not rely on the reader’s specialist knowledge to rescue what has been written.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, I can start again at the beginning of the book with the excellent “Daddy’s World”. This is a completely fascinating story about a child coming into self-awareness. In early years, there’s no conception of self. This only develops as a child begins to place him or herself in the environment and builds experience in affecting people and things. Identity is born when subjective power is grasped. The most pleasing aspect to this story is how power shifts between the father and son. As you might expect, a growing son can get a little rebellious but, sometimes, the father can reassert control. “Lethe” asks and answers some interesting questions about whether we benefit from being the sum of our life’s experiences. Early mistakes can colour lives with no chance of being able to recover. Unexpected loss and resulting grief are inconvenient, forcing us to adjust and change. So what would a society be like if death, for most practical purposes, was eliminated? Better still, suppose technology allowed you a fresh start. You could build a new body for yourself or you could edit your memories of the past and so sculpt a new emotional future for yourself. With such tools, we could eliminate suffering and live in a Hellish state of Nirvana. As a contrast, this idea of continuously redesigning your emotional life reaches a delightfully wry conclusion in “Millennium Party”.

I suppose the value of good science fiction is that it packages interesting ideas in a framework of adventure and wonder. We are bowled along by the drama and seduced by the cleverness of the concepts. In the best combinations, it’s only when we get to the end that we realise how the superficial led to the absorption of the profound. “The Green Leopard Plague” has a before-and-after structure where a future researcher is less than objective in assuming romance in the relationship of those responsible for releasing the plague. Continuing in the same universe as “Lethe”, we see how individuals lose their respect for life. In self-defence, we can kill others. In search of a better world, we may cause the death of millions. And once the economic and social ramifications of the original plague have been woven into the new social reality, even the idea of murder loses its horror. It’s simply an inconvenience to kill one body when another can be so easily constructed and a back-up of the mind of the deceased reloaded. A few days or weeks may be lost, but the victim can essentially be the same as before. Leading up to this, we have a fun romp called “The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid” where the technologists are enabling the release of yet more of their experimental doodads. This time, the ship carrying the McGuffin sinks and the recovery team has to use its initiative to recover it. Except their competitors cut corners and sea water does the rest. This is easily the most enjoyable of the stories, closely followed by “Send Them Flowers” which is what you would politely call a romp.

This leaves us with two rather more serious YA stories which rehash the ideas of children growing up in virtual environments and being able to rebuild bodies to order. I thought “Incarnation Day” a good version of the “Daddy’s World” idea, but it took too long to arrive at the more interesting legal ramifications of the substitution. Finally, although a tighter piece of writing, “Pinocchio” didn’t have the most engaging lead character. It’s always difficult when fame attaches to someone young. For a while you can go with the flow but, sooner or later, you have to show actual talent to survive.

Overall, this is a book that both entertains and provokes thought — a slightly unusual combination in a world more attuned to superficialities.

For reviews of other books by Walter Jon Williams, see This Is Not A Game, The Fourth Wall and Deep State.

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