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Originally published Friday, July 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Mirrored Heavens": Taking cyberpunk to the stratosphere

David J. Williams' novel "Mirrored Heavens" takes the cyberpunk tradition of William Gibson and moves it forward into a nightmarish world of eco-catastrophes and nuclear weapon standoffs, in which "razors" and "mechs" negotiate interlocking webs of loyalty and betrayal.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

David J. Williams will read from "Mirrored Heavens," 7 p.m. Thursday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

David J. Williams' first novel, "Mirrored Heavens" (Bantom Spectra, 409 pp., $12), works fast-paced changes to the science-fictional subgenre of cyberpunk, that romanticized vision of the near-future first popularized by William Gibson.

Classic cyberpunk has a noirish, Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler feel. Its heroes are hackers who experience the Internet as "cyberspace," a realm they move through in the form of disembodied consciousnesses. Gibson's focus has moved to the present in his recent work, but latter-day cyberpunk authors such as Richard K. Morgan continue to explore the untidy seams that soon will join humans with machines.

In Williams' take on cyberpunk, government agents work in teams of "razors" and "mechs": Razors negotiate cyberspace while mechs run interference for them in the real world, shooting everything in sight. Williams uses terse description and dialogue to delineate a complex web of loyalty and betrayal, set against a nightmarish world of eco-catastrophes and nuclear-weapon standoffs.

Cutting back and forth between three viewpoints, he weaves together the adventures of Haskell and Marlowe, agents who may also be longtime lovers, depending on how deeply their handlers have altered their memories; Linehan, a government defector; Spencer, the corporate razor Linehan runs to for asylum; and Carson, a mech sent to assassinate the retired agent who originally trained him.

The book's main plot concerns the hunt for "Autumn Rain," a terrorist group claiming responsibility for the destruction of the world's first space elevator. Haskell and Marlowe witness the attack as spaceships open fire on it. Kilometers of metal melt apart silently in the airless blackness, while the project's construction workers — "or at least parts of them " — explode and vanish. Though the two are assigned to the Autumn Rain investigation through official channels, they soon realize that even their boss is a possible fifth columnist.

Meanwhile, Carson finds himself part of a parallel operation spearheaded by a drug-addicted razor who believes the answers to the Autumn Rain mystery lie on the moon's dark side. And both Linehan and Spencer must grapple with their suspicions of each other's terrorist connections as they race toward international borders one step ahead of multiple pursuers.

Calling to mind Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry more than Humphrey Bogart and Philip Marlowe, "Mirrored Heavens' " action is wild and relentless: a hijacked train running below the seafloor, an EVA ("extravehicular activity") attempt to decouple a space plane and its payload, and other dangerous scenarios.

In a welcome respite from noir stereotyping, Williams' female protagonist is neither killed nor kidnapped. A subject, not an object, Claire Haskell moves and shakes her dystopic world. She is the one who faces the book's troubling moral questions, questions she resolves in a fairly optimistic ending.

Williams is a Brit living near Washington, D.C., a foreign-born author writing from the heart of the U.S.'s governmental apparatus. This doubtless accounts for some of his cynicism regarding the geopolitics of the coming century. The book's preamble consists of an imagined treaty between Eastern and Western bloc nations parceling out military rights to moonbases and strategic points in low-Earth orbit. There's an appendix, too, a timeline bridging the gap between our present and the early 22nd century in which "Mirrored Heavens" takes place.

Though Williams' debut novel is set further into the future than some earlier cyberpunk stories (Gibson's 1993 Bridge trilogy, for instance, supposedly begins in 2005, now our past), these added sections help the book maintain the subgenre's characteristic connection to the here-and-now.

"Mirrored Heavens" cleaves closely enough to the cyberpunk canon to be clearly identified with it, while departing from it sharply enough to refresh and renew its source.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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