Cenotaxis by Williams, Sean, 2007

Cenotaxis by Williams, Sean - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Although it is only April I have to say that the year of 2008 has started out much better for new SF releases than any of the past six or seven. I have found at least six new books that I think are worth talking about here. I will get the other reviews up shortly, but this week's review is of a novella by Sean Williams called Cenotaxis, which is advertised as being a bridging piece between the first two works of his Astropolis sequence, which I hear good things about. Although it is part of a larger series, this piece stands up well on its own. Three out of five stars.

Cenotaxis starts out as an atmospheric and pretty confusing story about two general's conflict of wills during a battle for the mastery of Earth, but it shapes up pretty quickly to be a thought provoking tale about transcendence to a post-human existence. Set approximately 900,000 years in the future in a galaxy densely populated by humans, some unknown force has started a phenomenon called the Slow Wave, which has washed over most of settled space. The Slow Wave's effect was to wipe out a tight network of highly advanced AI, called Forts, which humans used to run the business of galaxy management, including communications and defense. Most human planets were left in a pretty bad state after the Wave passed through their systems, and out of fear that the Wave was a military attack by an alien force, a general named Bergamasc rallied his troops and went from system to system, forcing the people to pledge homage to him and join his army against whatever the advancing threat is. Bergamasc comes to Earth and encounters Jasper, a civil leader who became a general, and who tries to repel Bergamasc's army. The parties went to war on an Earth that is only moderately changed from our time. Williams jumps around from place to place and time to time in the telling but eventually Bergamasc took Jasper hostage. What Bergamasc really wanted, in addition to an oath of fealty from Earth's civil leader, is the AI chip inside Jasper's head which allows him to communicate with a last, hidden proto-Fort that is hidden deep in the Earth. Only after weeks of torture and interrogation does Bergamasc learn that Jasper is not fighting him to keep Earth out of the war with the unknown power. Jasper is fighting so that a plan to create a post-human species of humans that may transcend their bodies comes to fruition, which would make mankind immune from physical attack of any kind.

I mentioned above that the book is "atmospheric," and by that I mean that there is a haze of confusion that takes a bit longer than usual to resolve. Jasper is actually one of the first steps towards a purely energy form of intelligence, and as a result of the changes he has undergone, his consciousness jumps around in time. Jasper is used to this jumping, which is not as chaotic, for example, as what happens to Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-5, but Williams tells the story from Jasper's perspective and does not let on why the story is so disjointed until well after the half-way point in the novella. I think the desired effect is to stimulate the subconscious of the reader into seeking more answers then the text alone poses, and I must say that it worked.

Williams also attempts to inject the book with a twist on Christianity and mythology, but in my opinion, its not too well conceived. Jasper thinks of himself as a God because he knows things from the future, which he has visited in his stumblings through time, and because he one day may be immortal and unassailable. But he certainly is mortal during the story, and after reading this thing I think most will agree with me that he is merely full of himself, and not godlike at all. Bergamasc sees himself as a messiah because he plans to rescue human civilization from the threat, but in my opinion the comparison to any religious leader is completely lost because nobody, including Bergamasc, has any idea who or what the threat really is. Actually, it all comes off pretty pathetic. At least in that regard. The rest of the thing is not bad at all.

I have generally stayed away from Williams in the past because he seems to crank out dense books that are parts of long-running series. Plus, he has done Star Wars novels. But after reading this piece I think I am going to give the rest of this series a try.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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