1987’s Voice of the Whirlwind is the second volume in Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired series. It can be read as a standalone novel1.
Etienne Steward wakes to discover that he is a clone, the Beta, of the man with whose memories he was imbued. More revelations follow, none good:
Having arranged to be reincarnated in clone form, the original Steward neglected to update his recorded memories. Beta Steward’s memories are fifteen years out of date. In that time, the Alpha survived a brutal war for the possession of enigmatic alien relics found on Ross 294’s habitable world Sheol. This war ended with the re-appearance of the alien Powers.
Transported back to the Solar System with the other survivors, Alpha Steward made a dog’s breakfast of the remainder of his life, with not one but two ex-wives who never want to see him again and a career path that ended with his brutal and unexplained murder.
Lacking the last fifteen years of memories, and the post-traumatic stress disorder that goes with them, Beta Steward should focus on pursuing his own life. So his therapist assures him. Said therapist is soon tortured to death in his soundproof office. That might just be a coincidence…..
A message left by his Alpha convinces Beta Steward that his predecessor was mixed up in some unfinished business that the Beta is duty-bound to resolve. Despite being a generation out of date, the Beta embraces the intelligence-operative version of the Actor’s Nightmare. Despite not knowing the rules of the game he’s in, who the players are, or even which side they are playing on, he sets out to complete the mission at which his far more experienced Alpha failed.
Voice is transhuman cyberpunk. Even though the characters have all the tools they would need to live fairly rewarding lives, the economic and political set-up is such that operatives like Steward spend their time in endless rounds of scheming, backstabbing, and ultra-violence. Most folks sell themselves to all-powerful policorps in exchange for medical care and economical housing. Meaningful power and choice are burdens from which hoi polloi are carefully protected.
Voice’s setting is one in which off-world colonies clawed their way to dominance soon after they were founded. Earth is now a second-rate backwater planet. As far as the orbitals are concerned, Earth is useful as a test bed for experimental ideologies, because its natural biosphere means mishaps won’t flatline civilization (as they would in a structure that depends on life-support tech). One wonders if that detail informed the Expanse series.
Looking back on Walter Jon William’s career forty years after it began, it’s striking how many of his works feature humans being dominated by or manipulated by technologically superior aliens: from Knight Moves to the Dread Empire’s Fall series to the Drake Majistral books, contact between humans and aliens often ends with the humans absorbed into the alien way of doing things. In the case of the Majistral and Dread Empire books, this was preceded by a short, one-sided war. The humans in Voice of the Whirlwind are more prudent: as soon as the Powers reappear, the humans adopt a cautiously conciliatory approach. At worst, it’s a strategy that will buy humans time. It’s probably the smartest thing to do under the circumstances.
The smartest thing to do under the circumstances is a phrase that does not often apply to Alpha or Beta Steward. Shaped by childhood in war-torn Europe, courtesy of an orbital social experiment gone wrong, the Stewards are long on principle and catchy philosophical slogans, adept at violence and related technical skills2, and short on sensible life choices. Thus the Alpha’s unrewarding life as a two-fisted man of action, and his Beta’s one-man campaign against an army of ghosts and shadows. It’s all thrilling to watch, and if the Beta doesn’t end up quite where he expected , he manages to alter human destiny. Not many people can say that they’ve done that.
1: If memory serves, it was written as a standalone. References to Hardwired were added at the insistence of the editor, who, if I correctly remember the timeline of WJW’s career, would have been someone named James Baen. Whatever happened to him?
2: At one point, Steward’s skills win him a place on a space ship. He doesn’t explain that the reason he knows so much about the equipment is that he was trained to break it.
3: Etienne Steward and the Expanse’s James Holden have a lot in common.