Just read: "Implied Spaces", Walter Jon Williams
Basically, this novel is Banks-style Culture, but lighter on ideas, interesting characters and plot. While there are some things to enjoy here, all in all this was a big disappointment. It's a shame, because I truly like this author. His "Dream Empire's Fall" trilogy is a fun space opera, and his novel "Aristoi" is an excellent novel about post-humanity.
"Implied Spaces", somewhat confusingly, starts off in a pre-technological desert culture setting. Aristide is a traveling scholar, accompanied by a talking cat and a big sword, who stumbles upon a new and dangerous cult which is killing people left and right. When he dispatches the cult priests, it becomes clear that his sword, Tecmessa, is a far-future weapon that creates mini-wormholes, transferring anything it hits to a separate universe. Really.
It turns out that that desert-style world is actually a separate universe created for roleplayers and medieval re-enacters. Nevertheless, the cult is actually the local manifestation of a new threat to the entire civilization, taking over people and turning them into pod people (that's actually the term he uses --- reference to the body-snatchers I guess.) The next section of the book is set on a "regular" planet (not a fake medieval role-playing one), in which it turns out that Aristide was actually instrumental in founding the current society, creating 11 huge Artificial Intelligence platforms that circle the sun and basically manage society. His cat is actually the avatar of one of those AI's. (Iain M. Banks, anyone? Huge AI's monitoring and managing society ... the Minds ... with little avatars representing them... Drones). Aristide, who had retired from public life to devote himself to research, is motivated to come back and join the fight against the cult.
Eventually it turns out that the leader of the Cult (who is imaginatively called the Venger *yawn*) is actually a copied version of Aristide, who'd been sent off hundreds of years ago in a colonizing effort, discovered proof that the universe is a designed artifact, and got so pissed off that he decided to enslave humanity to organize an effort to go out and yell at the creatures who created the universe.
There were some positives in this book, though. I like the idea of "implied spaces"... Williams describes these as unintentional parts of a creation (e.g. squinches, which is the word for the spaces between arches and pillars in architecture). E.g. in the first world, there's an ocean and a mountain range, but the (human) designers of that world didn't stick anything in between the two... so it turned into a desert. Then some creatures decided to make their home in that desert, and when we first meet Aristide, he is actually there to study those ants and scorpions who have made their home in that "implied space". And yes, rest assured --- Williams makes sure to hammer home the point: of course humans themselves are such creatures, making their home in a universe that wasn't created specifically for them. Anyway, I thought that was a neat idea.
The other small item I liked was the huge amount of separate worlds and worm-home universes that had been created for humanity: a Caliphate, a few Monarchies, a Greater Zimbabwe, a New Jerusalem and, yes, another New Jerusalem (to keep everyone happy). At a certain point there's a throw-away reference to a ruler called the Head Fred, and later it turns out one very rich misanthrope (Fred) created his own world and populated it with a few million copies of himself, so the ruler is referred to as the Head Fred. Come to think of it, that was probably my favorite part of this novel.
Okay, rant over. Walter Jon Williams is a great writer. Dream Empire's Fall is fun space opera-style SF. "Aristoi" is a must-read - keep an eye out for it in the second-hand bookstore (the spine is *very* yellow so it's easy to spot!). "The Rift", while not strictly SF, is an interesting apocalypse/disaster novel and (especially now) very relevant. Just skip "Implied Spaces". Two stars.
Next up: Just when I felt like a fun fantasy novel, the sequel to "The Lies of Locke Lamora" appeared, as if by magic, in our local library.